Statement against the mandatory imposition of Aarogya Setu App on workers

by Shraddha Mahilkar

On 30 April, the Internet Democracy Project along with 44 organisations and over 100 individuals endorsed the statement against the mandatory use of the Aarogya Setu mobile application by employees of various public and private offices all over India. The Internet Freedom Foundation sent this joint representation to various Government officials, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, and Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah.

The Aarogya Setu app infringes the right to privacy and personal liberty, and is unbecoming of a democratic country. We stand in solidarity with the Internet Freedom Foundation and other rights based groups and Individuals to call it out.

The full text of the letter can be found on the IFF website as well as below.


Shri Narendra Modi

Prime Minister

Government of India

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  • Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad

Minister of Electronics and IT

Government of India

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  • Shri Santosh Kumar Gangwar

Minister of Labour & Employment

Government of India

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  • Shri Amit Shah

Minister of Home Affairs

Government of India

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  • Shri Nitin Gadkari

Minister of Road Transport & Highways

Government of India

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1 May 2020

Subject: Representation to protect privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers during COVID-19 outbreak

Dear sir,

  1. We, the undersigned organizations, collectives and individuals write this representation to your offices to express serious concern about the violation of the privacy of workers through mandated use of the Aarogya Setu mobile app. We acknowledge the severity of the COVID-19 crisis which has gripped the country and maintains that it is especially during such public health emergencies that we must ensure the privacy and dignity of essential frontline workers are protected.

  2. During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the government has embraced the use of technology for health surveillance and it launched a mobile app called Aarogya Setu for self-assessment and contact tracing on 02 April 2020. While the government initially claimed that the use of Aarogya Setu would be purely voluntary, downloading the app was soon made mandatory for all Central Armed Police Forces personnel and employees of Prasar Bharati. However, as per news reports, army personnel have been instructed not to use the Aarogya Setu app at office premises, operational areas and sensitive locations due to data security concerns.

  3. In addition to government employees, gig and platform workers employed by private companies like Zomato and Urban Company (formerly known as Urban Clap) are also now being forced to use the Aarogya Setu app and share sensitive personal information like health and location data with the government without adequate privacy protections. At present, the Aarogya Setu app is operating in a legal vacuum and its Privacy Policy and Terms of Service do not comply with data protection principles of purpose limitation, data minimization, storage limitation, accuracy, integrity and confidentiality, and transparency and fairness in processing.

  4. So far, some companies, notably Zomato and Urban Company, have mandated use of Aarogya Setu for their delivery workers. As lockdown restrictions are gradually eased and other food delivery services, e‑commerce platforms and ride-hailing apps resume operations, they may take the decision to mandate the use of Aarogya Setu for their workers. In the near future, mandatory use of Aarogya Setu may also extend beyond the gig economy and undermine the rights and interests of workers in the traditional economy such as factory workers.

  5. While many delivery personnel and drivers share location data with their companies as part of routine business operations, the privacy risks posed by the Aarogya Setu app are much higher for two reasons. First, the Aarogya Setu app will collect sensitive health data in addition to location data. Second, while location data was previously only shared with the employer, it will now also be available to government agencies through the Aarogya Setu app. Therefore, the intrusion on the privacy of gig and platform workers is significantly greater than ordinary workplace surveillance. In any case, companies already have access to data about the location of workers and their interactions with customers, and contact tracing is possible even without the Aarogya Setu app.

  6. It is pertinent to note that the Central Government has not mandated private companies to use Aarogya Setu and it remains a voluntary measure, however, in effect it is being made mandatory by such entities. A news report titled Draft e‑com SOP: COO responsible for meeting norms, staff to download Aarogya Setu app’ published by the Economic Times on 19 April 2020 suggests that the Government had privately circulated a Draft Standard Operating Procedure for E‑commerce with stakeholder companies which mandates the use of Aarogya Setu by all workers. The Draft Standard Operating Procedure also holds the Chief Operating Officer of the company responsible for any failure to abide by these guidelines. Therefore, mandating the use of Aarogya Setu appears to be a liability reducing measure by private companies and it amounts to the government indirectly mandating the use of the app after publicly assuring citizens that it would not do so.

  7. The Aarogya Setu app has been heavily criticized for failing to adhere to internationally recognized data protection principles endorsed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the landmark judgement in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017 10 SCC 1). In Puttaswamy (Privacy), the Court recognized that privacy was a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution of India. The Court further noted in the age of Big Data, collection and processing of personal data of individuals can reveal a lot about their lifestyle, choices and preferences. The Court acknowledged that in certain circumstances, the use of such technologies may be justified if the government was pursuing a legitimate goal. However, even in such circumstances, these technologies must be deployed in a necessary and proportionate manner.

  8. In order to satisfy the proportionality standard adopted in Puttaswamy (Privacy), the use of any privacy infringing technology must satisfy five criteria. First, it must have a legislative basis. Second, it must pursue a legitimate aim. Third, it should be a rational method to achieve the intended aim. Fourth, there must not be any less restrictive alternatives which can also achieve the intended aim. Finally, the benefits must outweigh the harm caused to the right holder. In the present case, Aarogya Setu fails the very first prong of the proportionality standard because it does not have a legislative framework to govern its functioning and to ensure adequate procedural safeguards. In the absence of a legislative guarantee containing a sunset clause, sensitive personal data about health and movement of gig workers collected by the Aarogya Setu app could be misused for profiling and mass surveillance even after the COVID-19 outbreak is over.

  9. In the specific context of health data, the judgement in Puttaswamy (Privacy) emphasized on the need for a data protection legislation to ensure that personal data was not used to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their health status. The Court further went on to note that the government may collect and process health data of individuals during epidemics to design appropriate policy interventions but such data must be anonymized.

  10. The Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules 2011 issued under Section 43A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 similarly classify health data as sensitive personal data” and specify that health data can be collected and processed by body corporates only with the consent of the individual [Rule 5(1)]. The Rules also impose various obligations on body corporates relating purpose limitation [Rule 5(2) and 5(5)], notice [Rule 5(3)], storage limitation [Rule 5(4)], right to access and correction [Rule 5(6)] and right to opt-out [Rule 5(7)].

  11. The proposed Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act also lays down stringent safeguards to preserve the confidentiality of digital health data and associated personally identifiable information. The draft legislation recognizes that individuals must consent to collection and sharing of their health data and it outlines specific purposes for which health data can be utilized by different entities. Pertinently, the proposed Act permits the use of digital health data for epidemic control only after it has been anonymized or de-identified and it prohibits employers from accessing the health data of workers under any circumstances. Therefore, even though India does not have a comprehensive data protection legislation at present, the importance of protecting health data of individuals has been recognized by the judiciary and the government.

  12. In addition to lacking legislative basis, the Aarogya Setu app deviates from international best practices for contact tracing apps and fails to comply with data protection standards for the following reasons:

a. Lack of Consent: The use of Aarogya Setu cannot be considered voluntary anymore as it has been made mandatory for delivery workers. Therefore, there is no scope for delivery workers to refuse consent or opt-out.

b. Lack of Data Minimization: Registration for the Aarogya Setu app requires sharing large amount of personal data: name, phone number, age, sex, profession, countries visited in the last 30 days and smoking habits. This is inconsistent with the principle of data minimization.

c. Lack of Transparency: While it is claimed that personal data collected by Aarogya Setu is aggregated and anonymized, there is no publicly available information about what processes and techniques are followed for aggregation and anonymization. This is relevant because there is high risk of re-identification unless personal data is properly anonymized. Therefore, the app must be subjected to thorough security testing by governmental and independent agencies.

d. Lack of Algorithmic Accountability: The Terms of Service for Aarogya Setu exempt the government from any liability arising out of misidentification of an individual’s COVID-19 status. Therefore, individuals are left at the mercy of opaque algorithms which perform risk assessment and do not have any remedy in case of false positives. If gig and platform workers were falsely identified as high risk individuals by Aarogya Setu’s algorithm, they would be required to self- isolate and lose their income and freedom of movement.

e. Unauthorized Data Sharing and Risk of Function Creep: There is no prohibition on sharing of personal data collected by the Aarogya Setu app with third parties. The government is allowed to share this personal information with other necessary and relevant persons” for necessary medical and administrative interventions.” The Privacy Policy for Aarogya Setu fails to specify which government departments will have access to personal data collected by the app. Therefore, sensitive personal data collected for contact tracing may also be used by law enforcement agencies for punitive purposes.

f. Risk of external transfer and integration with other databases: Personal data collected by the Aarogya Setu may be transferred to an external cloud-based server and there is no guarantee that it will only be stored locally on the individual’s device. Reports suggest that the data collected by Aarogya Setu is being integrated with other databases maintained by the Indian Council for Medical Research and Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme. This is worrisome because it is difficult to delete such integrated datasets and secondary inferences at a later stage.

  1. Classified as independent contractors, gig and platform workers do not enjoy the same level of income and job security as legally recognized employees. They are particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis when finding alternative employment is practically impossible and they lack bargaining power vis a vis companies or the government. Therefore, they should not be forced to download the Aarogya Setu app which lacks transparency and accountability in its present form.

  2. The International Labour Organization’s guidance on applicable labour standards during the COVID-19 pandemic dated 23 March 2020 also clearly states that governments must put in place measures to protect the privacy of the workers. It also instructs governments to ensure that health surveillance is not used for discriminatory purposes or in any other manner prejudicial to their interests.

  3. In addition to these privacy concerns, there is also a need for governmental intervention to provide income security to gig and platform workers who have been unable to work during the lockdown or have witnessed a significant drop in their earnings due to low demand. Gig and platform workers are paid per delivery and they are not guaranteed a stable income. As a consequence, despite toiling for long hours during these difficult times, many gig and platform workers are still struggling to make ends meet because there are not enough deliveries for everyone. Further, personal protective equipment and medical insurance should be provided to gig and platform workers who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to exposure to many customers every day.

  4. In collaboration with gig workers’ unions, Tandem Research and Centre of Internet & Society have developed a comprehensive charter of recommendations for COVID-19 relief measures to protect the socio-economic well-being and health of gig workers, and we urge your Ministry to address these issues of financial relief and occupational health safety as well.

  5. Considering the damaging impact of the Aarogya Setu app and COVID-19 lockdown on the privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers, we urge your office to undertake the below mentioned measures in collaboration with the private sector.

a. Take cognizance of privacy concerns associated with Aarogya Setu and issue an advisory clarifying that use of the app should not be made mandatory for workers in the gig economy and also the traditional economy.

b. In addition to (a), to ensure greater safety, rely on certain methods of risk mitigation such as working with companies to provide daily temperature checks and personal protective equipment to all gig and platform workers who continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

c. Further, devise the right incentive structures both for companies and workers to ensure that gig and platform workers are able to sustain themselves during the lockdown and those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are not forced to work to ensure their livelihood. This includes provisions for medical insurance and financial relief to all gig and platform workers who have been unable to work during the lockdown or have witnessed a significant decrease in earnings due to low demand.

Kind Regards,

Access Now

ADF India

All India Central Council of Trade Unions

All India Union of Forest Working People

Amnesty India

Asia Dalit Rights Forum

Association for Progressive Communications

Association for Protection of Democratic Rights

Bachchao Project

Chennai Metropolitan Construction and Unorganised Workers Union

Common Cause

Delhi Solidarity Group

Digital Empowerment Foundation

Feminism in India

Forum Against Oppression of Women, Bombay

Foundation for Media Professionals

Free Software Community of India

Human Rights Law Network

Indian Delivery Lions Organization

Indian Federation of App Transport Workers

Indian Journalists Union

Indian Social Action Forum

Indic Project

Internet Democracy Project

Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Mumbai

Jharkhand Nagrik Prayas

LABIA — A Queer Feminist LBT Collective



Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

National Alliance of People’s Movements

National Adivasi Alliance

National Fishworkers’ Forum

Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace & Democracy, India Chapter

Point of View

Pothe Ebar Namo Sathi

Project Constitutionalism

People’s Union of Civil Liberties

People’s Union for Democratic Rights

Red Dot Foundation

Socialist Party of India

Swathanthra Malayalam Computing

Tandem Research

United Christian Forum

Abha Bhaiya One Billion Rising

Abhinav Anand Student

Akram Parvez Technical Art Director

Ammu Abraham PUCL Maharashtra

Anand Patwardhan Film Maker

Ankur Sarin Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad

Anuradha Kapoor Feminist Activist

Arun PS Policy Researcher

Ashish Ghosh Retired Teacher, University of Delhi

Asis Kumar Das Social Activist

Avani Chokshi Advocate

Basawa Prasad Kunale Advocate

Brijesh Kumar Former Secretary, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology

Brinda Adige Ananya Mahila Okkutta

Ch Narendra Senior Journalist

Chayanika Shah Queer Feminist Writer and Researcher

Chitra R Educator

Darshan R Software Engineer

Deepak Mukarji Founder Member, United Christian Front

Dr Shakeel Physician

Dr Mira Shiva Public Health Physician

Dr Mohan Rao

Former Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU

Dr Tusharkanti Dey

Community Health Advisor (Retired), All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health

Felix Padel Anthropologist and Author

Gautam Bhatia Advocate

Geeta Seshu Free Speech Collective

Gurbir Singh President, Mumbai Press Club

Gurshabad Grover Technology and Law Researcher

Harsh Kapoor South Asia Citizens Web

Indira Unninayar Advocate

Irfan Engineer Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

Janaki Srinivasan IIIT-Bangalore

Japleen Pasricha Feminist Activist and Entrepreneur

John Dayal Former President, All India Catholic Union

Kalyani Menon Sen Feminist Learning Partnerships

Kannan Gopinathan Former IAS Officer and Activist

KP Sasi Filmmaker

Kunal Majumdar Committee to Protect Journalists

Leo Saldanha Researcher

Madhu Bhaduri Retired IFS Officer

Madhu HS Chartered Accountant

Maitreyi Krishnan Advocate

Manoj Mitta Journalist and President, FMP

Mary Mathai Former Chemist and Homemaker

Meena Gupta Retired Civil Servant

Megha Garg Gandhi Fellow

Nachiket Udupa Activist

Nadika N Writer and Researcher

Nidhi Agarwal Activist

Nikhil Naren Advocate and Author

Oishik Sircar Associate Professor, Jindal Global Law School

Padmini Ray Murray Design Beku

Pamela Philipose Journalist

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta Journalist and Filmmaker

Prabha Nagaraja TARSHI

Pradeep Esteves Context India

Prajval Shastri Astrophysicist

Prof. Sandeep Kumar Shukla

Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Kanpur

R Ramanujam Professor, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

Rahim Contractor Civil Engineer

Rajinder Chaudhary

Former Professor, Department of Economics, M. D. University, Rohtak

Rashi Balachandran Human Centred Designer

Reetika Khera Associate Professor, IIM Ahmedabad

Revati Laul Journalist and Director, FMP

Rishab Bailey Technology and Law Researcher

Ritu Dewan

Director and Professor, Department of Economics, University of Mumbai

Rupsa Mallik CREA

Salma Francis Vision for Oasis Waves Society (VOWS)

Sandeep Pillai Software Professional

Sandhya Gokhale Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai

Sanjay Kak Filmmaker

Satyavir Singh Former Principal Commissioner, Customs and Central Excise

Saurabh Bhattacharjee

Assistant Professor, West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences

Sebastian Poomattam Lawyer and Priest

Sharanya Nayak Activist

Shivaji Sarkar National Union of Journalists

Shreya Munoth Advocate

Soma Basu Journalist and Media Researcher

Sonakshi Yadav Student

Sreechand Tavva Independent Technology Consultant

Srikanth L Cashless Consumer

Srikanth. KS Independent Researcher

Srinivas Kodali Free Software Movement of India

Srinivasan G Software Professional

Subhashis Banerjee Professor, Dept of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi

Subodh Lal

IPoS (Retd.) Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, Government of India

Subodh S Gupta Public Health Professional

Subodh Sharma Professor, Dept of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi

Sudhanshu Pathania Ph.D Scholar, NALSAR

Sujata Patel Distinguished Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University

Sukla Sen Peace Activist

Sulakshana Nandi Public Health Researcher

Sundar Burra Retired IAS Officer

Sunep Imsong Technologist

Sunila Singh Women’s Rights Activist

Swati Punia Lawyer

Tara Murali Architect

Tarunima Prabhakar Project and Research Lead, Tattle Civic Technologies

Teesta Setalvad Citizens for Justice and Peace

Ujjwal Singh Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi

Vandana Mahajan Independent Feminist

Vickram Crishna Independent Researcher

Vinay K Sreenivasa Advocate

Virginia Saldanha Activist

Xavier Dias Editor, Khaan Kaneej Aur Adhikaar

Zafar Iqbal Former Civil Servant, Consultant and Advocate