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Coronavirus pandemic: Aarogya Setu app can help in contact tracing but privacy issues need to be addressed

India's Aarogya Setu can help in contact tracing and better monitoring of coronavirus pandemic but it also collects a lot of sensitive and private data, and experts have privacy concerns.

twitter-logoRoshni Majumdar | April 16, 2020 | Updated 18:17 IST

Highlights

  • India has a contact tracing app for coronavirus patients. The app is called Aarogya Setu.
  • The app uses Bluetooth to keep a record of mobile devices that come in contact with each other.
  • If a user tests positive for coronavirus, the app will alert all devices the patient’s phone came in contact with.

A simple Google Trend search will reveal that Indians are searching for ways in which they can download India's contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, and whether they can really use it as an e-pass to move around communities. The feature is most likely going to be enabled in a few days.

The concept of contact-tracing is not new but has so far been done manually. It means tracking down people who came in contact with a COVID-19 patient. Those who came in contact go into self-quarantine to break the infection chain.

In India, the task of contract tracing was being done by the Integrated Disease Surveillance Program. At the beginning of March, a small staff was routing suspected COVID-19 patients to hospitals and tracing people who the patient may have come in contact with. But the number of cases soon began rising. Currently, COVID-19 may have reached half of India's 700 districts.

This is where technology can play a role. Experts say that it can help but it is not sufficient on its own to break the chain of transmission. Contract tracing apps like Aarogya Setu rely on Bluetooth signals as well as GPS location data (some countries like Singapore do not collect location data on their tracing apps) to record devices that have interacted with each other.

Aarogya Setu how it works

Instead of relying on human memory of the patient, contact-tracing apps make possible for others who may have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive patient to know so, immediately. Once someone tests posts, she or he enters that information on the app. The app alerts all those who came in touch with the infected patient because the app has already recorded that information.

Lalitesh Katragadda, a former Google executive, who worked on the Aarogya Setu app along with a team of 30 other volunteers, says the app has been made to make sure the government can manage resources if there is an explosion of cases. In other words, the government is preparing for the worst.

He says it would be much harder to deploy resources if the government had to rely on tracking people by tracing their phones to the cell towers. Though theoretically possible, there would be no time to do so during an emergency situation.

Indians also rarely go for regular medical check-ups. Most have very little understanding of comorbidity or other underlying conditions that could affect their health if they were to get infected. That's why the app asks for sensitive data about a person's health. The government downloads the data of those above 60 years old and those who're at high risk of coming down with the virus.

If this was before the quarantine era, any of this would have sounded dystopian. These are highly invasive technology after all. Even if users are willing to trade data in the interests of staying safe, there are questions about the effectiveness of using Bluetooth chip technology to trace people. For example, the app may alert a lot more people to go into quarantine even though a person might not be infected because Bluetooth signals tend to ping persons who may be more than 30ft away.

Second, Sidharth Deb, a technology researcher at the Internet Freedom Foundation, says that there is another scope for false negative. Not everyone has downloaded the app which means that people might just become more cavalier about roaming around freely since the algorithms will work on limited data.

Currently, the number of people who have downloaded the app is more than 3.8 crore. Lalitesh said they've been seeing "a million download an hour." Given that the prime minister has asked citizens to download the app directly in his address to the nation earlier in the week, the number of downloads is likely going to shoot up.

Aarogya Setu privacy concerns

Though there are concerns about how effective the technology will really be, there are genuine concerns about privacy as well.

One, the team who worked on the app made sure that the app was designed in a way that'll invite people to disclose their sensitive information voluntarily. Since everyone is used to Whatsapp in the country, the app came with a similar chat-friendly interface.

From the privacy point of view, that is of great concern. Not only does the government now have access to our names and date of birth, but it also has access to our biometric information. Yuval Noah Hariri, in his recent interview to India Today, raised that concern and said that biometric information can lead to much stronger dictatorships than we've ever seen before. Not only will the government know who we are and where we are and who we are meeting but it can also use this information in ways that gives it more control and power over people.

Then, there are concerns about the kind of data collected. The list is far and wide, and there appears to be no stringent limitation on the purpose for which the information is collected. It may be used for allocating resources to someone, it may also be abused and used to expose a journalist's sources if raw location data is exposed.

In fact, Mint reporters found that 11 out of 17 COVID-19-related apps in the country had no privacy control. That led to a rampant data breach. The Karnataka government released addresses of those who were asked to self-quarantine on a mobile app. There were Whatsapp messages with the names of those who had reportedly attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi.

There are good reasons why civil society is worried about contact-tracing apps, and why these apps have raised surveillance concerns, particularly in countries that don't have good privacy protection measures in place. India's data privacy bill is likely going to be taken up this monsoon session of the parliament. If the concerns are not addressed, many will refuse to download the app. In other words, not taking privacy concerns into account could just backfire.

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