The Aarogya Setu is a healthcare app launched by the Narendra Modi govt.
The Aarogya Setu is a healthcare app launched by the Modi government on 2 April | Source: Mygov.in
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Going to the grocery store in a lockdown just got more complicated.

It has been over a week since you last went out grocery shopping. You are fast running out of essentials like milk, eggs and butter. You make a comprehensive list of all the things you could possibly need for the next two weeks of lockdown.

It was bad enough that you had to stand outside the grocery store in circles painted on the ground, maintaining a one-metre distance. You now have to show the guards that you have downloaded the Aarogya Setu app on your cell phone before you are allowed to enter the store.

It’s like the latest season of Black Mirror. And this new government-mandated app, Aarogya Setu, is the twist in the season finale.

It’s a very wrenching decision – give in to the Narendra Modi government’s promises of keeping you safe from Covid-19 or let it surveil your movements. You feel like a teenager all over again who has to decide whether to trust her parents or question their controlling ways. We are allowing the government to keep an eye on us all the time, to keep us secure. It was bad enough that we resisted attempts by families to install Phone Tracker on our iPhones. But now we have to hand it to the government to keep us safe from a virus.

First we were told that washing hands and wearing gloves and mask was enough. That was simple. Then we were told to stay inside our homes until the government deems fit. Now, it is Aarogya Setu and contact tracing. What will come next?


Also read: Pakistani operatives create fake Arogya Setu app to ‘steal info’ from Indian defence forces


The concerns remain 

Aarogya Setu, or “a bridge to healthcare”, is a Covid-19 tracking app launched by the government of India. At the centre of Prime Minister Modi’s contact tracing efforts, Aarogya Setu was launched in early April and has since been downloaded more than 75 million times.

With the government making the app mandatory for all private and public sector employees, it has given rise to a slew of debates on social media over its privacy and surveillance concerns. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called it “a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a pvt operator, with no institutional oversight.”

While Gandhi was quickly called out by Varun Jhaveri — officer on special duty to the CEO of Ayushman Bharat — who clarified that the app privacy policies have been updated to make it more user-friendly, it all still seems very grey.

“All info uploaded is deleted (even from the server) after 45 days of uploading,” Jhaveri tweeted.

But with vague statements that don’t reveal which government authority will be managing the data, why they have voided liability in the Terms of Use, and what happens when one integrates their e-pass or makes UPI donations through the app, such calls for calm are inadequate for the doubting mind.

After fighting and losing the battle for privacy against Aadhaar, many of the same activists – from Usha Ramanathan to Apar Gupta — have now begun directing their ire towards Aarogya Setu. They said that technology is offered as an answer these days even before the question is asked.

I wonder if the battle against Aadhaar was lost, how can Aarogya Setu be resisted when it is literally a life and death question?

When the State comes at you with suspicion, it is easier to resist. Like the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). But when the State wants your information to save you from a deadly pandemic, resistance becomes more difficult.

There’s also the fact that in our country of over a billion people, only a fraction own a smartphone. So, most of the poor will be left out, which means the app can’t do its job of protecting and updating everyone.


Also read: Aarogya Setu is ‘priority’ as Modi govt plans big publicity campaign for its Covid work


What’s inside Aarogya Setu

To see what the whole debate was about and why this app is such a topic of contention, I downloaded it. To be fair, the discussions surrounding the app made me more hesitant downloading this app than going out during a pandemic.

With the app saying it wants to access your data and offers a sketchy Terms of Use, hitting the okay button when asked for bluetooth and location access is not easy. On downloading, the Aarogya Setu app asks a set of questions beginning with gender, name and age, followed by occupation and whether or not it comes under essential services. Surprisingly, journalists don’t feature in a list of healthcare workers, police officers and other such service providers despite PM Modi listing them as one when he first announced the lockdown on 24 March.

Creepy as it may be, the app layout doesn’t hold back. With a chat like format when taking the self-assessment test, it’s almost like you’re texting your family doctor. But you’re not. It even offers a Zomato-like layout with an “In your area” tab, which shows how many people have downloaded the app, taken the self-assessment test and have tested Covid-19 positive. On Sunday afternoon, 3,257 people were using the app, 106 had taken the self-assessment test and one had tested Covid-19 positive within 500m from my current location.


Also read: How the world is embracing contact-tracing technology to fight coronavirus


Is India alone?

Contact tracing apps are being used around the world — Corona 100m and Corona Map in South Korea; TraceTogether in Singapore; Covidsafe in Australia; HaMagen in Israel among others — in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. But while all these countries have kept the use of their apps voluntary, Indian government has made it mandatory. Italy, which has come up with an app called Immuni, will be able to roll it out after the lockdown is lifted only if the country’s parliament approves it.

With other countries leaving it upon the users, will people in India willingly allow access to their phone and personal data to the Modi government for the sake of public health? It began as an encouragement to people to download the app but has now turned into coercion with threats of criminal action against those who don’t comply. Downloading Aarogya Setu has even become part of bail conditions, along with donating money to the PM Cares fund, in states like Jharkhand.

So what are my choices then? I look at my phone and look at the number of apps with access to my location and other personal data. Maybe Aarogya Setu will just be one more app on my screen. Or it will turn out to be the beginning of a long Aadhaar-like battle.

Views are personal.

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3 Comments Share Your Views

3 COMMENTS

  1. Today on BBC there was a program on tracking apps. One expert stated that in the UK the epidemiology expert claimed that the app would only provide effective protection to users if at least 80% of the people downloaded it and used it properly. This number seems reasonable.
    In India, there are not that many smartphones – even in metros – as pointed out above.
    So the app is unlikely to help the user.
    Whether it helps the government agencies or not is a moot point.

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