Contact Tracing India-Style: Despite the Risks of COVID-19, Privacy Advocates are Concerned

Contact Tracing India-Style: Despite the Risks of COVID-19, Privacy Advocates are Concerned

As countries move to pivot out of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, many turn to various strategies involving testing and contact tracing schemes to not only contain infections, but also track and mitigate risk moving forward. Hence a number of nations have established mobile tracing app initiatives from China and Singapore to EU members and Australia. For example—in America, Apple and Google have come together to develop a software app solution designed to on the one hand introduce contact tracing features, but on the other hand preserve user privacy and prevent government intrusion. India’s government has actively pursued a contract tracing initiative to help control SARS-CoV-2 infections. In the country of 1.3 billion, a government-run smartphone app utilizes location service and a central database to evaluate infection risk, but critics endanger civil liberties. The approach in India has some privacy advocates alarmed as data privacy laws are lax and sweeping orders impose mandatory downloads for many. In some area’s, cops can come and punish you if you don’t have the app.

India and the COVID-19 Pandemic

India is the hardest hit of South Asia nations. As of this writing, nearly 63,000 cases have been recorded with 2,101 deaths.

What is the App?

Aarogya Setu app, which was launched in India in April, supports the ability for individuals to identify whether they have been near someone who tested positive for the virus. Since then, the app was downloaded 90 million times—for some perspective, India has a smartphone user base of approximately 500 million.

The app gives the user a series of questions via chatbot that users must answer. Suspected of being infected and the user is put in a big database somewhere and contacted by health authorities.

Who developed the App?

Literally meaning “Bridge for freeness from disease” the Indian COVID-19 tracking mobile application Aarogya Setu was developed by the National Informatics Centre that comes under the government Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The app is available for Android and iOS.  

What is the Purpose of the App

The state purpose is to spread awareness of COVID-19 and to connect essential COVID-19 related health services to the people of India. By leveraging Bluetooth, the app attempts to determine the risk if one has been near (within 6 feet of) a COVID-19 infected person via a scan through a database of known cases across India.

Why is there such concern?

According to media reports, the national government is mandating that all workers—whether in the public or private sector—must download and use the app, as does members of the military. Moreover, if one lives in a designated “containment zone” they must download and use the app on their smartphone. Are you an Indian living abroad desiring to come home? You too must download and use the app before coming back home.

How has  the Indian government popularized the app

In addition to other promotional measures such as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging Indians to download the app, or campaigns featuring Bollywood celebrities showing how cool it is to do—more coercive measures exist such as employers requiring it for all employees. And if this isn’t convincing enough, there are of course even more coercive ways such as using police forces—see “Cops” below.

What technology is the monitoring based on?

GPS and Bluetooth

What are privacy advocates’ concerns?

Privacy advocates, such as Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation believe the app represents a “form of surveillance and inflicts tangible privacy injury.”

What is the government’s response?

A senior minister named Ravi Shankar Prasad commented that the app had “robust” data privacy protection and security features. Moreover, the government reports that there are no breaches despite the fact that a French security researcher exposed a flaw that purportedly could allow virus carriers to be pinpointed, reports Siouxland News.

Bad Boys What You Going to Do: COVID-19 Cops

For those that don’t download the app, in some parts of India you might be arrested. Noida is about 30 minutes from New Delhi in Northern India. There, the authorities are very serious about contact tracing: if you don’t use the app, you can potentially be punished—even go to jail!

Does Contact Tracing actually work?

Many societies and nations are experimenting with the concept now. One study at Oxford University conducted by epidemiologists suggests it is actually very challenging to make such schemes work. The Oxford group estimates that 60% of the population in a given area would be required to use contact tracing technology and this alone wouldn’t be enough—other measures would need to be in place as well such as broad-based testing and quarantining of vulnerable people. 


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