Aarogya Setu: An app as a life-saver? 

The contact-tracing app is being touted as necessary to avoid getting infected with the virus. But there are questions surrounding its efficacy and potential for misuse of data

 Aarogya Setu: An app as a life-saver? 

Suman Sengupta

What is one more App in a society that is driven by a multiplicity of Apps? Apps now tell us whether we have walked the desired distance, taken the required intake of calories, whether our heart beats are regular and the level of sugar in the blood and blood pressure. They also recommend what to eat and when and offer to fix a growing number of problems. A large number of people have now got in the habit of using these apps, without verifying the results and recommendations made.

The Aarogya Setu Mobile App launched by the Government claims to alert users when they breach social distance and alert health authorities if users come in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The GPS tracker and Bluetooth connectivity of the Smartphones are to be kept activated all the time.

There are already indications that the Government is planning to make it compulsory for Indians to download the Aarogya Setu App designed to trace the movement and contacts of users. It is not mandatory yet and the legal framework is missing. The Government is clearly in no mood to have wider consultations and address misgivings voiced by agencies like Internet Freedom Foundation.

There are reports that hospitals are denying admission to patients who may not have downloaded the app. Schools have been asked to ensure that both students and their parents do so. Public sector units and Government bodies have asked employees to download the app or else! Suggestions have even been made that entry into the city of Delhi be banned if the visitor does not have the app downloaded. A steady barrage of messages in the mobile inbox, exhorting people to download the app have also conditioned people to believe that this is an extension of care and cure. It therefore seems just a matter of time before we are all forced—much like Aadhaar—to download it.

This is necessary to counter the deadly virus, the Government feels and has pointed out that China, Singapore and South Korea have used contact-tracing apps effectively to keep the virus at bay. Several other countries are said to be in the process of developing their own apps and the writing on the wall seems to be clear.

Once we download the app, our movement, locations and people we come in contact with will be easy to map for the Government, if it so desires. Naturally, the app’s efficacy will depend on not switching off the mobile ever, especially when you are on the move. This does not bother most people but the app can be easily abused for surveillance and keep an eye on employees, dissidents, critics of the government, journalists, writers and activists.

The smart phone application is undoubtedly helpful in identifying hotspots and fighting the epidemic. Health administrators can receive real time information and intervene. But the app is not tried and tested. One doesn’t know the margin of error and whether it can raise a false alarm. In a country where accuracy of data is always in doubt because of broken systems, how smart is it to rely on the app? It’s like a country which lacks basic health services, suffers from shortage of doctors and medicines but decides to toy with a fancy app, which may give the Government the illusion that it is working.

What is more, receiving the data is one thing. Acting on them is quite another. Given the efficiency levels in the Government and the inadequate and broken public health infrastructure in the country, how effective can the app be? It may be helpful in manipulating data, concealing uncomfortable or inconvenient data and give out partial data to justify any action. Without sufficient checks and balances in the system, it could end up as a tool of harassment in the hands of an incompetent and agenda-driven bureaucracy

A majority of the people must download the app in their smartphones, and keep their GPS and Bluetooth on all the time, to enable the Government to plan ‘geofencing’ and segregate localities during an outbreak. But with only around 30% of the mobile phones in use in the country said to be smartphones, it raises doubts about the efficacy of the scheme and the intention of the Government, which can extend and use the app long after the epidemic gets over.

The relative success of contact tracing in much smaller countries like Singapore and in South Korea, besides a totalitarian China, might not guarantee its success in an entirely different demography in India.

The user is required to fill in personal details along with records of existing illness if any. The App will also try to ascertain whether the person is found symptomatic of the infection. Next the user will be prompted to keep his phone switched-on enabling the requisite connectivity so that his movements become traceable. Simultaneously, a pre-installed feature of the App will start educating the user about the infection.

It is a moot question why people will accept the extra cost for continuous data consumption once the threat of the pandemic recedes. But there is no clear message from the Government that this is going to be a temporary measure and can be disabled or uninstalled after a few months.

There are also questions about access and storage. There is no clarity whether the information will be accessed only if the user inadvertently meets someone carrying the virus. There are unconfirmed reports that the data will be stored in a server with access given to a company which had allegedly leaked Aadhaar data and sold them. That is why safeguards are so necessary.

The pandemic has shown how a polarised society becomes easy prey to rumours and propaganda. Under the circumstances, the fear that information related to Corona infected people might be used to hound and harass them may not be entirely misplaced. Finally, a contact tracing App can succeed in a society which does not stigmatise the affected. Unfortunately the infected in India have often been treated like criminals and dealt with by police with a heavy hand. It will be successful only when citizens will feel free to talk about the sickness with an open mind without fear of social marginalisation.

A cyber security organisation in Paris found the App to yield substantial data on the user’s movement and contacts with people. The data can be used to prepare a graphic analysis of the places a citizen visits, the people he meets, the time he spends with them and on different activities and his eating and buying habits.

Significantly, the terms of use of Aarogya Setu explicitly authorises the government to use the data on occasions other than an epidemic as well. It is also interesting to note that the Indian Army believes the app could threaten internal security of the country. That could be a good starting point for initiating a discussion on the controversial app

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