One prominent template of India’s battle against Covid-19 has been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised addresses to the nation and his appeal to his fellow countrymen for cooperation and a range of compliances. While announcing that the lockdown would be extended, he asked for a seven-point cooperation from Indians, one of them being to download the Aarogya Setu app and inspiring others to do so as well. The app is the central government’s flagship corona tracker programme, which employs voluntary contact tracing to build a database that helps users to ascertain if they are near someone who has contracted the virus, a list of measures they can take to self-isolate, as well as an exhaustive list of advisories in case the user is displaying any Covid-19 symptom. ‘Voluntary’ being a strictly operative word here to describe it though — as a legion of measures have been adopted to make it increasingly mandatory. The Mint reported that all new smartphones released in India will come with the app pre-loaded, and the government has made it mandatory for all their employees, with some private doorstep service providers also making it a must for their delivery personnel.
How does the app work?
The app can be downloaded from Apple Store and Google Play Store and, after authenticating the user’s phone number through a One Time Password (OTP), it becomes operational. Users have to share some basic information regarding their travel history and device location, and agree to keep the bluetooth switched on. They can then track if they are near a Covid-19 hotspot or have come in close proximity with an infected person. The location data is triangulated through a combination of GPS and bluetooth technology. However, for the app to succeed, it becomes vital that a sizable section of the smartphone-using population in India download and use it. For now it seems that the appeal of the prime minister has worked. Before the televised address on 14 April, the app had somewhere near 10 million plus downloads on Play Store. Soon after the address, it had surpassed 50 million plus downloads. The success was so phenomenal that the CEO of policy think-tank NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant, tweeted, ‘Telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users, Internet 4 years, Facebook 19 months, Pokemon Go 19 days. #ArogyaSetu, India’s app to fight COVID-19 has reached 50 mn users in just 13 days – fastest ever globally for an App. Salute the Spirit of India!’
Concerns about citizens’ privacy
It has to be a foregone conclusion that in this day and age, modern tools of Information Technology will play a pertinently crucial role in mitigating the catastrophic effect of a global pandemic like Covid-19. The increased use of tech that operates through the aid of potentially sensitive troves of user data has ushered in an era of globally acceptable norms of privacy compliance. The Aarogya Setu app, which has a scale that none of its other counterparts from across the globe can claim, can be perceived to have some serious issues with meeting those globally held standards of safeguarding user privacy. In an exclusive interview with Spark.Live, Sidharth Deb, who is the Policy and Parliamentary Counsel for the Internet Freedom Foundation, said, ‘To address the privacy concern, purpose limitation of an app like Aarogya Setu is the key. At present, the purpose has been kept vague. There seems to be an excessive collection of personal data in Aarogya Setu. Also, a real fear is that there are asymptomatic carriers. What if people become cavalier by using the app, which has no way of detecting asymptomatic people and, hence, cannot alert the user?’ Mr Deb, who has authored a working paper on this issue, emphasizes that in the absence of robust data protection legislations, such technological interventions can become a ‘permanent response’ and give rise to ‘new risks of institutionalizing mass surveillance’. The working paper — titled ‘Privacy Prescriptions for Technology Interventions on Covid-19 in India’ — recommends 17 steps that developers of the app and the government can take to ‘arrest these concerns’. Mr Deb also points out that there is no clarity on how the data is anonymised other than the promise that it has been done so.
The response of the government
As the stated objective of Aarogya Setu can only be fulfilled if people comply and download it, the government has understandably rushed into defending the alleged privacy-related loopholes. The Press Information Bureau, the media wing of the central government, released a detailed fact check in an effort to quell the privacy concerns raised by digital rights activists and some media reports. ‘The app does not link user location and data with any sensitive personal data. Also, it does not make users vulnerable to hacking,’ they stated. They reiterated that the app usage is voluntary and one can delete the app if and when deemed necessary.
The paradox of safety versus privacy remains though. It is not clear who exactly will have access to the user data and for what duration will it be stored. And, if the database is breached — as it has happened with some Aadhaar users — who will be held responsible. There remains no doubt that Covid-19 is an unprecedented challenge that needs effective countering at all levels. And it may have far-reaching consequences on how all pervasive technology can be allowed to become and what it does to individual liberty and democracy.