What is Aarogya Setu, how it works and privacy concerns around COVID-19 app
The Centre has mandated that all public and private sector employees use Aarogya Setu and maintain social distancing in offices as India begins to ease some of its lockdown measures in lower-risk areas. The country has been divided into red, orange and green zones as the lockdown has been extended till May 17.
Stepping up efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, India has made it mandatory for all public and private sector employees to use Aarogya Setu -- a government-backed contact-tracing app on their mobile phones and maintain social distancing in offices. The move comes as the country begins easing some of its lockdown measures in lower-risk areas. To know about this app, how it works and privacy concerns associated with it, read on.
WHAT IS AAROGYA SETU?
Aarogya Setu -- meaning Health Bridge -- is a Bluetooth and GPS-based application developed by the National Informatics Centre. It was launched by the government of India on April 3 to track the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The app alerts users who may have come in contact with people later found to be positive for COVID-19 or deemed to be at high risk. It also provides people with important information, including ways to avoid coronavirus infection and its symptoms.
"Use of Aarogya Setu shall be made mandatory for all employees, both private and public," India's Ministry of Home Affairs said in a notification late on Friday.
It will be the responsibility of the heads of companies and organizations "to ensure 100% coverage of this app among the employees," it added.
The government also said that offices re-opening are required to implement measures like gaps between shifts and staggered lunch breaks to contain spread of the coronavirus that has infected 3.3 million worldwide and caused more than 230,000 deaths.
The announcement came on a day the government extended the nationwide lockdown by two weeks from May 4 with certain relaxations in lower-risk districts.
HOW DOES THE APP WORK?
While accessing Aarogya Setu, the user carries out the self-assessment test through a chatbox. In it, details like a person’s gender, age, foreign-travel history, and symptoms have to provided. The user has to allow access to Bluetooth and GPS tracking. The data is then used to identify risk and alert other users if they come across anyone suspected of coronavirus.
The app is available in 11 languages, including English, Hindi and Punjabi. Several countries across the world are also developing similar kinds of apps to contain the spread of the highly-contagious virus.
The district administration has also been asking all educational institutions and departments to push downloading of the app. The current version of Aarogya Setu app works in smartphones only.
The app has largely received positive reviews on the Play Store. It has been downloaded around 50 million times on Android phones, which dominate India's smartphone user base of 500 million, according to Google Play Store data.
Aarogya Setu’s compulsory use is raising concerns among privacy advocates, who say it is unclear how the data will be used. They stress that India lacks privacy laws to govern the app.
"Such a move should be backed by a dedicated law which provides strong data protection cover and is under the oversight of an independent body," said Udbhav Tiwari, Public Policy Advisor for internet company Mozilla.
Digital rights organization, The Internet Freedom Foundation, in a recent paper, called the app a "privacy minefield", adding "it does not adhere to principles of minimisation, strict purpose limitation, transparency and accountability".
The app is “conceivably a risk toward a permanent system of mass surveillance”, it said.
"The app runs very palpable risks of either expanding in scope or becoming a permanent surveillance architecture," said executive director Apar Gupta.
Digital rights experts have warned that use of such technologies raises the risk of surveillance, and that some of these measures will persist even after the situation eases.
In a joint statement earlier this month, about 600 scientists and researchers from around the world said GPS-based contact tracing apps lacked "sufficient accuracy" and carried privacy risks.
Thomson Reuters Foundation, quoted Suhrith Parthasarathy, a lawyer, as saying: "Aarogya Setu is framed as a necessary technological invasion into personal privacy to achieve a larger social purpose.
"But without a statutory framework, and in the absence of a data protection law, the application's reach is boundless."
New Delhi, however, has said the app will not infringe on privacy as all data is collected anonymously.
The app can help authorities identify virus hotspots and better-target health efforts, the IT Ministry had said, adding that information on the app is used "only for administering necessary medical interventions".
Meanwhile, there are reports claiming that the government is planning to make the app mandatory for every individual who wants to use government services such as flights, and metros. But we have to wait and see whether this planning comes into force.
So far, India has reported over 37,000 cases and 1,218 deaths from the virus.