Did MHA sneak in Aarogya Setu into our lives through a back door?

New order on third phase of lockdown makes it mandatory for all public and private sector employees to download app

Arogya sethu

When the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order containing guideline for the third phase of the lockdown on May 1, it set alarm bells ringing given how the order proved to be a virtual backdoor for mandatory universalization of the Aarogya Setu app.

Point 15 on page 7 of the MHA order says, “Use of Arogya Setu app will be made mandatory for all employees, both private and public. It shall be the responsibility of the head of the respective organisations to ensure 100% coverage of this app among employees.”

This is a very curious aspect of the lockdown order. Earlier, downloading the app was mandatory only for people who had been diagnosed as Covid-19 positive were required to use the app for monitoring purposes. For everyone else it was optional.

It is important to understand just how the Aarogya Setu app ‘protects’ the user. Actual protection from the disease can only come from frequently washing hands, wearing masks, practicing good hygiene and social distancing. However, the app alerts its users if a Covid-19 positive person is nearby, thereby allowing uninfected users to maintain distance. The app works by collecting a user’s location data and cross referencing it with the Covid-19 test database of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The objective is to help people maintain distance from infected persons, in a bid to curb the spread of the infection. But what it also does is put a virtual bull’s eye on an infected person, making them vulnerable to stigmatization, ostracization or worse.

But the app has received nothing endorsement from those in the highest echelons of power. On April 14, during his famous Saptapadi address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself urged people to download the app and even tweeted about it.



Now that the MHA order requires one to mandatorily download the app, the nature of concerns in two-fold; invasion of privacy, given how the app tracks the location of the user, and the exclusion factor, given how only people with a smart phone can download the app, leaving those who are not privileged enough to own a smart phone devoid of the ‘protection’ the app purportedly provides.


Privacy Concerns

The privacy policy of the app states that the app will store your name, phone number, age, sex, profession and countries visited in the last 30 days on a government server and provide the uses with a unique digital ID (DiD). It further states, “The app continuously collects your location data and stores securely on your mobile device a record of all places you have been at 15 minute intervals. This information will only be uploaded to the Server along with your DiD, (i) if you test positive for COVID-19; and/or (ii) your self-declared symptoms indicate that you are likely to be infected with COVID-19; and/or (iii) the result of the self-assessment test is either YELLOW or ORANGE.” The app therefore, appears to come dangerously close to ringing privacy alarm bells.

Given how a person’s infected status would only show if they upload this information to the app and consequently the government server, the app also therefore, inadvertently discourages people from reporting symptoms or infection status, rendering the entire purpose of the app pointless!

But there are many more concerns, the chief of which is mass surveillance. This kind of surveillance will be difficult to combat as the rampant contact tracing will be justified as being in public interest.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has raised several red flags with respect to Aarogya Setu and possible misuse of contact tracing for mass surveillance purposes. It says, “With the creation of such systems, come new risks of institutionalisation of mass surveillance. Critically, India lacks a comprehensive data protection law, outdated surveillance and interception laws, or any meaningful proposals for meaningful reform. In domains like disaster relief, most apps which are purported as ‘contact tracing’ technologies, they often devolve into systems of movement control and lockdown enforcement.”

The IFF also warns about the efficacy of such apps saying, “A lot of technology solutions with no demonstrable scientific value to the national response can be passed off as being in the public interest. It leads to poor deployment of public resources and also makes it difficult for crisis responders to discern between “snake oil” and quality technology products. These risks are exacerbated in technology markets since there are no adequate checks and balances in development phases which ensure quality.”

Exclusion factor

It is well known that despite the fact that the virus was brought into the country by people privileged enough to afford international travel, it had disproportionately affected the lives of the poor who are forced to live cheek-by-jowl in congested urban slums and low-income neighbourhoods located in cities where every square inch of space is an indicator of privilege. If it is essential to download the app because it ‘protects’ people, then are the lives of the poor less valuable?

On April 13, 2020 IFF released its working paper called Privacy Prescriptions for technology interventions on COVID-19 in India. In this report IFF addresses this very concern about Aarogya Setu and says, “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. It may also exacerbate the risks associated with the harvesting of personal data like health information, and also see the creation of new privacy invasive systems.”


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