The slow death of the Aarogya Setu app: Data concerns and ineffectiveness

Almost eight months after the launch of the Aarogya Setu app, users have pondered on their privacy concerns and administrators question its effectiveness

The slow death of the Aarogya Setu app: Data concerns and ineffectiveness
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The Sanskrit words Aarogya Setu means, ‘a bridge to liberation from disease,’ and roughly the majority of India's population is familiar with the name of the app developed after the onset of the pandemic in India.

The app describes itself as a ‘mobile application developed by the Government of India to connect essential health services with the people of India in our combined fight against COVID-19. It is aimed at augmenting the initiatives of the Government of India, particularly the Department of Health, in proactively reaching out to and informing the users of the app regarding risks, best practices and relevant advisories pertaining to the containment of COVID-19.’ The app has been downloaded over 100 million times on the Playstore and was developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

How it works

The Aarogya Setu app is primarily a tracking app that uses the smartphone's GPS and Bluetooth features to track the coronavirus infection, with Bluetooth, it tries to determine the risk if one has been near, within six feet of a COVID–19-infected person, by scanning through a database of known cases across India and using location information, it determines whether the location one is in belongs to one of the infected areas based on the data available. The was launched on April 2, 2020, and is an updated version of an earlier app called Corona Kavach, since discontinued, released earlier by the Government of India

For the registration of the Aarogya Setu app, users have to submit their names, phone number, age, sex, profession, and travel history in the last 30 days, this information is then stored on a government server and then hashed with a unique digital ID. following this, the app then assesses the health of the applicant and based on what you submit a risk score is given. The app then notifies the user if they are at risk of being COVID-19 positive, with the app also alerting all the people who came in contact with a COVID-19 positive user of the same, through the use of Bluetooth and GPS. 

The app will alert a user only if she/he comes in contact with an infected person who has also downloaded the app and has both Bluetooth and GPS turned on in their phone. The app won't work if you meet an infected person who doesn't have a mobile phone or uses a basic phone. It also won't work if the user tested positive before downloading the app. The only way the Araogya Setu app will work to its full potential is if at least 20 crore people download it.

As per the directive issued under the Disaster Management Act, the Government of India made it compulsory for the following to install the app:

  • People residing in ‘containment zones’,
  • Government and public sector staff,
  • Employees, both public and private, who are allowed to work during the lockdown,
  • Stranded Indians abroad, once they landed in India through Vande Bharat Mission.
  • Travellers who will be moving on special passenger trains. 

The Aarogya Setu app was heavily promoted by the Government of India, in the first phase of Unlock 1.0 after almost a 4-month-long nationwide lockdown. With each phase of the Unlock having lesser restrictions than the prior, India saw a drastic surge in COVID-19 positive cases and death cases, as compared to other countries, hence the need for the health surveillance as a key tool to assist us in response to the pandemic and the entry of the Aarogya Setu app. 

The problems

Even though the app has helped discover over 600 hotspots for COVID-19 in the country and healthcare workers relying on voluntary data collected by the app to frame responses, identify clusters and take adequate precautions in their line of work, at the moment it seems that there are more barriers to the adoption of the Aarogya Setu app, amid concerns of designs and privacy issues.

Dr Pempa T. Bhutia, Secretary cum Director-General of the Health Department, Government of Sikkim says that the Health Department doesn't have much use of the app.

Furthermore, IEC Officer, Sonam Bhutia, informs that although the state does have an Arogya Setu officer, the app itself isn't used much by the health officials for the intent that it was developed for- monitoring, rather using it as a means to collect data and that the app isn't really useful for a state like Sikkim, and that rather than monitoring the COVID-19 positive cases through an app, the Department relies more on calling the positive patient and relaying the information. 

Most reviews and feedback for this app are not always positive, with most concerns being over security and the privacy issues, which led to the Government of India releasing the source code of the app. Many regard the Aarogya Setu app as a sophisticated surveillance system, with the Terms and Conditions of the app providing the Government with a blanket limited liability and with no accountability in the event of data theft of the users.

App users have no control over their data, which can be considered a violation of their privacy, even though under the Terms and Conditions of the app, the government is obligated to delete certain personal data of a user 30 days since there is no legal framework to check compliance fro the same. With the app constantly updating its privacy policy, without users being notified, incidents like these don’t garner trust from the public.

Sonam Lama, a user who has now since deleted the app from his phone, says that even without the glitches, he found the mandatory nature of its installation dubious. "It's one thing to say that this app detects infected people around you but another to really think about how many people are actually uploading personal information without the slightest doubt.

"Moreover, in a state like Sikkim where the rural population trumps the urban, it's useless for low-income families who might not be able to afford smartphones in which to download the app and there are no other accessible alternatives. People might also make the wrong inference through the app and might stigmatize someone based on the app’s faulty algorithms."

He adds, "Plus with all the news and updates we have been getting from the Health Department, there has been little to no mention of how it is being used to identify COVID-19 positive people. The only time locals heard about it in the news was when there was an actual technical glitch and everyone began panicking. I don't think it served the purpose it was created for if that's even an honest purpose with all the rumours going on about how it hasn't been built by a government body".

Many also believe that the app breaches one’s fundamental right to privacy as there is no legal framework to show that in the event of a breach, being reasonable also as the executive order for the mandatory download of the app, was imposed without any legalization. Despite being in use for more than 5 months, it's still not clear whether the Aarogya Setu app has more banes than boons.

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