The Straits Times 8 May 2020

India’s contact tracing app is nearly mandatory, but questions of efficacy remain 

by Rohini Mohan

BANGALORE - Delhi-based student Shrutika Patade downloaded Aarogya Setu last week after she received at least 10 text messages from the Indian government urging her to use the tracking app.

“I thought that staying safe should be my priority,” said the 23-year-old, who also convinced her two roommates to download the app.

But soon, the three were “disappointed”.

“We live together in a 10x12 hostel room, but on each of our phones, the app shows a different number of positive cases near us. The app is of no use,” said Ms Patade, who also tweeted a screenshot of the three phones, right next to each other, showing different messages.

To facilitate the enormous task of contact tracing in the world’s most populous nation, the Indian government’s Ministry of Information Technology designed the Aarogya Setu app with the help of volunteers from the private sector, and launched it in early April.

Supposedly inspired by Singapore’s TraceTogether app, Aarogya Setu continuously collects data on the location of the user through Bluetooth and GPS, and cross-references it with the Central government database to determine if the user has come into contact with an infected person.

It requires users to keep their GPS location on at all times which the government says can also help it identify infection hotspots.

Aarogya Setu has been downloaded over 90 million times already. India’s government has pressed for its use through print advertisements, social media campaigns, and even the Prime Minister’s speeches, but it is not always up to users to decide.

The number of Indians who are not required to use the app is shrinking. Last week, the government made downloading Aarogya Setu mandatory for all public and private sector employees, people who live in “containment zones”, and Indians stranded abroad who are now being flown back on special flights.

From the outset, privacy advocates have criticised the app’s inadequate data security. But as more people are forced to download the app, they have also raised questions about its efficacy.

“The app was launched without a data protection law in India, and without a sunset clause (when health data collected will be deleted). When asked this, the government said it’s fine, Aarogya Setu is voluntary. Well, it’s clearly not voluntary anymore,” said lawyer and constitutional expert Gautam Bhatia.

The police in Noida, a district bordering the national capital Delhi, have said they will punish anyone without the app on their phone with a 1,000 rupee fine or six months in jail.

Mr Sharad Mohan, a resident of Sector 42 in Noida, said, “I check (the app) daily and all it does is collect data and give me the same reply - you are safe!” He wanted to uninstall it, but has refrained because policemen at shopping centres are doing random checks.

The Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project records 40 government departments, courts and companies that have enforced downloads of Aarogya Setu.

Employees from L&T Finance Ltd, Cisco Bangalore, logistics company Diptab Ventures (Bangalore), health solutions company One Advanced (Bangalore), Virtuoso Optoelectronics (Nasik), Mercedes Benz (Bangalore), and ISGEC Heavy Engineering (Haryana) told The Straits Times they received emails from their companies’ human resources departments asking them to download the app.

For confirmation, some companies had a self-declaration form, or demanded screenshots. Others had team managers check their employees’ phones.

Most employees said they followed orders, but did not keep the GPS and Bluetooth on at all times, because it drained the battery. Some were also concerned about privacy.

“I don’t think the app is a good idea. I know the inferences that can be made when our location data is on always,” said Mr Satyasrinivasan Subramanian, who works on electric vehicles at Mercedes Benz in Bangalore.

On May Day, 45 civil society organisations, including the Internet Freedom Foundation, Amnesty India, and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties wrote to the government expressing concern that the mandated use of the Aarogya Setu app would violate workers’ privacy. They warned that the app collected too much data in a non-transparent way.

Digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation has written to the Standing Committee on Information Technology - a parliamentary body chaired by MP Shashi Tharoor that will submit a report on the basis of which a law will be framed - to commence urgent hearings on the Aarogya Setu app for alleged violation of citizens’ right to privacy.

Aarogya Setu’s privacy policy says that the collected data will be used only to trace contacts, but its makers have suggested that it could also eventually be used for telemedicine and movement passes.

India’s Information Minister has said that the app could be in use for one to two years.

Given their limitations, public health experts also caution against viewing contact tracing apps as a cure-all.

“This excessive focus on simple, one-dimensional apps to solve a complex, social, public health issue is taking focus away from on-the-ground efforts which involve human interaction and ensure trust and reassurance. A failure of community engagement and awareness can’t be solved using an app,” said Dr Sonali Vaid, a Delhi-based public health professional.

Another concern is how many people will need to use the app for it to work. A recent study by epidemiologists in the UK estimated that for every two users of a contact-tracing app, one infection would be averted, but for the pandemic to be stopped, at least 60 per cent of the population would need to use the app.

To complicate matters, although about 61 per cent of adults in India own a phone, according to a 2016 Pew Research survey, only 17 per cent own a smartphone, required to run Aarogya Setu.

The Indian government is reportedly developing a version of the app for feature phones as well.

Originally published in The Straits Times .