India is aggressively pushing a state-backed contact tracing app to fight the spread of COVID-19, raising fears that the world’s second-most populous nation is on its way to Chinese-style methods of high tech social control.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has touted its app, Aarogya Setu, or “Health Bridge,” as a key tool in fighting the deadly coronavirus. With more than 70,000 people already infected, the number of cases in India is expected to exceed China, the origin of the outbreak, within a week.
Like many apps being rolled out around the world, Aarogya Setu uses Bluetooth signals on smartphones to record when people come in close contact with one another, so that contacts can be quickly alerted when a person tests positive for COVID-19.
But the Indian app also uses GPS location data to augment the information gathered via Bluetooth and build a centralized database of the spread of the infection—an approach avoided by most countries for privacy reasons.
And it mimics China’s health QR code system with a feature that rates a person’s likely health status with green, orange or red colours, signifying whether the individual is safe, at high risk or a carrier of the virus.
On top of that, the federal government earlier this month made use of the app mandatory for all public and private sector employees returning to work as the world’s biggest lockdown eases—drawing sharp criticism from digital rights’ advocates.
It made India the world’s only democratic country to make the use of a contact tracing app mandatory for its citizens, according to Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC).
“The government is virtually forcing you and taking your data without consent,” said B.N. Srikrishna, a former Supreme Court judge, who led an effort to draft India’s first data-privacy law.
“Once your fundamental rights are being breached left and right, without anybody to question you, and if the courts are not going to help you, you’re even worse than China.”
But the Modi government, which has drawn international criticism for its treatment of the country’s large Muslim minority, is not backing down.
The Railway Ministry, which is currently running special trains to take migrant workers and others to their home towns, has ordered all passengers to download Aarogya Setu “before commencing their journey”.
A paramilitary force guarding India’s airports and the metro train stations in capital New Delhi has proposed a similar plan for all passengers, according to media reports.
A spokesman for the paramilitary CISF said it had made no such recommendations to the government, while the Delhi Metro said it was yet to finalise its plan to resume services.
And in Noida, a hub for smartphone manufacturing on the outskirts of New Delhi, police are using the country’s criminal code to ensure everyone on the road has downloaded the app.
PRIVACY, SURVEILLANCE CONCERNS
The National Informatics Centre (NIC), the government agency which developed Aarogya Setu, is free to share personal data from the app with government departments and public health institutions, according to a circular issued by India’s Technology Ministry on May 11.
The system could be used to create permanent government databases containing sensitive personal information about Indian citizens, said New Delhi-based digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). The IFF also raised a red flag about the NIC’s ability to share anonymised data with Indian universities and research institutions.
“This demonstrates the incentives for why the government of India has taken a centralised approach,” the IFF said. “It is less about taking the least intrusive measure towards responding to the public health crisis, but more towards maximising the utility of data.”
The Technology Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Critics, including a French hacker, have called on the government to make the app’s source code public, so that independent researchers can fully understand the technology.
The government intends to do that, two senior officials from India’s Technology Ministry told Reuters, but declined to give a timeline.
The Technology Ministry has previously said that the Aarogya Setu app can help authorities identify virus hot spots and better target health efforts, and that information would be used “only for administering necessary medical interventions”.
An official at the government think-tank, NITI Aayog, said last month that the app was a “temporary solution to a temporary problem”, adding that the country may have stumbled across “the initial building block for an India health stack”.
Critics say the government’s approach to the app is reminiscent of the Modi administration’s effort to make Aadhar, a biometric ID system, mandatory for everything from opening a new bank account to getting a mobile phone connection.
That push, which also lead to fears of a surveillance state, was reined in by India’s top court in 2018.
There are also questions of whether the core Bluetooth contact-tracing functions will work effectively without new technology from Apple and Google, which many countries are now adopting. The tech giants will not permit apps such as Aarogya Setu, that use GPS and are made mandatory, to use their tools.
So far, nearly 100 million Indian smartphone users have downloaded the app since its launch in early April. The government on Thursday released a version of the app for roughly 5 million users of the cheap internet-enabled JioPhone. The rollout will soon cover the remaining roughly 95 million JioPhone users.
But another 300 million Indians use basic feature phones and do not have access to the Aarogya Setu app.
For them, India has launched a toll-free number that connects their devices to the Aarogya Setu platform, allowing them to self-assess for COVID-19 via an interactive voice response system.
But the mandatory use of the app could marginalise these people if the rules mean they can’t get on a train to go to work.
“It’s not just a privacy issue but a human rights issue where you are going to exclude a whole section of the society from accessing transport, from accessing their workplace,” Prasanth Sugathan of SFLC India said.
“It’s definitely going to be a big problem for them.”