As India attempts to emerge from the various stages of lockdown in an attempt to flatten the COVID curve, there is a renewed push to get the citizens to download and install the Aarogya Setu app on their smartphones. Official numbers suggest that the Aarogya Setu app has been installed on 9.8 crore smartphones so far. But there has been a raging debate about the privacy and surveillance aspects of the app, with critics alleging that the app with its access to your location and Bluetooth proximity data, can be used for illegal surveillance. New and fresh fuel has been added to the fire.
A Covid Tracing Tracker has been launched by the renowned publication MIT Technology Review and they are working with experts around the world to understand what each COVID contact tracing app offers, and the issues around it. At this time, they have compared and ranked the Contact Tracing apps launched in 25 countries, including India’s Aarogya Setu. The apps are being ranked on five parameters—is it voluntary or not, is it being solely used for public health purposes or there are usage scenarios for law enforcement, is the user data collected by the app deleted within a reasonable amount of time and whether the entire process is transparent.
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This is how the MIT Technology Review describes each of the parameters.
- Is it voluntary? In some cases, apps are opt-in—but in other places many or all citizens are compelled to download and use them.
- Are there limitations on how the data gets used? Data may sometimes be used for purposes other than public health, such as law enforcement—and that may last longer than covid-19.
- Will data be destroyed after a period of time? The data the apps collect should not last forever. If it is automatically deleted in a reasonable amount of time (usually a maximum of around 30 days) or the app allows users to manually delete their own data, we award a star.
- Is data collection minimized? Does the app collect only the information it needs to do what it says?
- Is the effort transparent? Transparency can take the form of clear, publicly available policies and design, an open-source code base, or all of these.
In case of every answer that is a yes, the app gets a star. For any answer that is a no, or the data for the same isn’t clear, there is no star.
The apps that get five stars are Austria’s Stopp Corona app, Czech’s eRouska, Iceland’s Rakning C-19, Israel’s HaMagen, Singapore’s Trace Together and Norway’s Smittestopp. Following these with four stars are Australia’s COVIDSafe, CovTracer from Cyprus, Italy’s Immuni and Poland’s ProteGO.
China's contact tracing system gets no stars. One of the reasons for that is the complete lack of transparency around how it works, what data is collected and how that data is handled, encrypted and deleted. "There is very little information available to the public about how China's technology works," say the researchers.
India’s Aarogya Setu only gets stars for the policy which suggests that data that is collected is deleted after a period of time and that the data collection, as far as user inputs go, is minimal. However, the app doesn’t score any points (or stars) for being voluntary, for its usage being limited to public health and for transparency. “India is the only democracy making its app mandatory for millions of people,” says the research.
There have been significant concerns about Aarogya Setu, that it’s potential usage far surpasses the COVID contact tracing angle that is attached with it right now. It is not voluntary, which means it is being forced on to millions of users in the country. The fears that its location data will be used for tracking and surveillance, refuse to go away. The policies and communication around the app also don’t come across as entirely transparent.
Similar fears have been voiced in other countries. Apple and Google, in an unprecedented partnership, are developing a COVID contact tracing platform for iPhones and Android phones, which these apps will rely on. The two tech giants say they will limit location access to these apps.
As for the voluntary bit—a few hours ago, the Indian Railways made it mandatory for anyone who wants to travel on its trains, must have the Aarogya Setu app installed. It is expected that airlines will also have similar guidelines in place when air travel resumes. In the city of Noida, it is now illegal to step outside without the Aarogya Setu app installed on your phone.
Contact tracing is critical in curbing the Coronavirus spread around the country and indeed around the world. A person who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus may not show any signs or symptoms for as many as 14 days more but can spread the infection in the meantime through cough, for instance. As and when a confirmed COVID case is taken in for treatment, health authorities scramble to track as many people this infected person may have met in the past few days.However, the MIT Technology reports that Iceland isn’t seeing the benefits of high penetration of the COVID contact tracing app in the country. The country has the highest penetration of any automated contact tracing app in the world, which sees about 40% of the population using the Rakning C-19 app. “The technology is more or less … I wouldn’t say useless,” says Gestur Pálmason, a detective inspector with the Icelandic Police Service who is overseeing contact tracing efforts. “But it’s the integration of the two that gives you results. I would say it [Rakning] has proven useful in a few cases, but it wasn’t a game changer for us.”