In the absence of a personal data protection law in the country, activists have pointed to the ambiguity of language in the privacy policy of the app.

Aarogya Setu app
Coronavirus Coronavirus Saturday, May 02, 2020 - 15:41

A month ago, the Indian government launched the Aarogya Setu app, a tracing app that highlights if you have been in proximity with someone positive for COVID-19 using location services and Bluetooth. While the government has maintained that this is voluntary, the Centre on Friday stated that the app was now mandatory for all employees, public or private, and that it was the responsibility of the organisation’s head to ensure there is 100% coverage. 

This is in addition to directing local authorities that all residents in a containment zone needed to download the app. 

This comes after the Centre on Wednesday directed its 48.34 lakh government employees to download the mobile app "immediately" and report to office only when it shows "safe" status for commuting.

The order stated, "Before starting for office, they must review their status on 'Aarogya Setu' and commute only when the app shows 'safe' or 'low risk' status."

The officers and staff are advised that in case the app shows a message that he/she has 'moderate' or 'high-risk', calculated on the basis of Bluetooth proximity ("recent contact with infected person"), he/she should not come to office and self-isolate for 14 days or till the status becomes 'safe' or 'low-risk', the Personnel Ministry said.

If someone does not download/install the app, it is punishable under Section 188 of the IPC (disobedience of an order by a public servant) and Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act (disobedience of an order by an official relating to a disaster). They have to be convicted for this, and it won't apply just because the police caught them.

In his address to the nation on April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to download the app, which has raised privacy concerns.  

The app, in its current form, asks for a user's location at all times. Once a person downloads it, it starts with asking questions about their profession, health and whereabouts and then ‘judges’ if the person is safe.

Based on location, the app also alerts you how many people have tested positive, how many flagged themselves unwell and could be at risk in proximity of 500 metres, 1km, 2km, and so on.

In the absence of a privacy law in the country, privacy activists have pointed to the ambiguity of language in the privacy policy of the app. In its statement, the Internet Freedom Foundation says that there is no means of transparently auditing, cautioning against the app becoming a permanent surveillance architecture.

Ten days after PM Modi’s announcement, on April 24, the government announced that 75 million people had downloaded the app. 

The government even urged social media companies to promote the app “in the larger public interest as well as to fight this health emergency situation”. The government reportedly even asked for progress reports. 

It went one step ahead with last week, Zomato, Swiggy and Urban Company stating that people on their platforms were required to have the app in order to work. “We have made sure that they can only login to their Zomato Delivery Partner app if their phone has the Aarogya Setu app installed and is running as a background process on their phone,” Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal said. 

On Wednesday, when the government allowed stranded migrants to move to their respective places, where they would be kept in home quarantine, the Ministry of Home Affairs said, “They would be kept under watch with periodic health check-ups. For this purpose, such persons may be encouraged to use Aarogya Setu app through which their health status can be monitored and tracked.”

“As such, the Aarogya Setu application appears to clearly be inconsistent with privacy-first efforts which are being considered by technologists and governments,” wrote Sidharth Deb, policy and parliamentary counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, in a working paper.

“Such systems inadvertently discriminate against regions which have fewer concentrations of smartphones. Specifically, it can lead to harmful outcomes for people residing in economically weaker areas.

In countries, public health systems are already creaking under the looming threat of capacity deficits. If such systems wrongly urge people to pre-emptively take tests then there is a risk that public health systems may be overwhelmed prematurely,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said

While the government says that the app is voluntary and that people’s data will be protected, IFF states that the government has a blanket liability limitation in the service agreements and privacy policies. “This means citizens cannot hold the Government accountable or seek judicial remedy should they wish to ensure the Government’s processes are compliant with the right to privacy,” IFF added. 

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.