Updated: Mar 14
The right to privacy has been held as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India, disregarding all the efforts of the democratically elected government of India, to inflict its complete and absolute authority over the privacy rights of the individuals. The Indian government has many a times tried to circumvent the stand of the Supreme Court on this issue, one of them is obviously introducing the mandatory use of Aadhar. Now, during this unprecedented human crisis, another step is introducing the Aarogya Setu app.
In the Year December 31st, 2019, the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China has created an unprecedented human crisis that has led to a deep impact on our lives. Almost every nation is facing the adverse effects of this deadly virus and governments in every nation are doing their best to combat this virus. Although, India has a minimum number of cases of covid-19 as compared to other countries till now, the pandemic is already revealing the profound and disturbing link that exists between public misunderstanding of science, religion and media in the country. India is also battling against this pandemic with greater efforts and has been facing some challenges in its path too.
The Indian Prime Minister has been working with other global leaders to tackle covid-19 in India. At this time, every corona warrior like doctors, nurses, sanitation workers are playing an important role to deal with this unprecedented crisis. With the aim of prohibiting any misinformation about this virus, the government of India has created ‘MyGovCoronaHelpDesk’ which will provide true information about the number of cases of infected persons in India and also guides you with relevant information about the virus.
Further, the government of India, ministry of electronics and IT has developed a mobile app ‘Aarogya Setu’ on 2nd April to help the citizens identify their risk of contracting covid-19 the app is available in 11 languages. Basically, this app is a digital tool to trace people who have got exposed to any infected person. The government has made it mandatory for a few groups of people to install this app in their mobiles. With this app, the main aim of the government is to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country. And till now, this app already has 90 million downloads in the country. In spite of having millions of downloads, there are issues of privacy concerns regarding this app and the ethics behind the collection of data needed to trace people from this app.
The Aarogya Setu App
Aarogya Setu, a tracing technology developed by India, was launched on April 2 this year. The necessity of developing this tracing app lies in the fact that it can track a person who came in contact with another infected person. It then alerts the app user if any of the contacts tests positive for Covid-19. The App uses the person’s mobile Bluetooth and GPS to be active all the time. It will keep a record of all the other Aarogya Setu users that it detected nearby using Bluetooth. These records are stored on the phone till the time any user tests positive or declares any symptoms of Covid-19 in a self assessment survey in the app. Basically, this app is a digital tool to trace people who have got exposed to any infected person.
The Mandate By The Government Of India
On April 14, PM Modi in his address to the nation appealed to people to download the app. This app has been developed to prevent the spread of covid-19 in the country and making people aware about this deadly virus. The reason behind the development of this tracking app lies in the necessity of formulating appropriate health responses for addressing Covid-19 pandemic, and for this data pertaining to individuals or persons who are infected or at high risk of being infected was urgently required. To fulfill this purpose, the government has issued certain guidelines and various advisories on precautionary measures such as social distancing. The government has been continuously citing the benefits and advantages of the app, such as the fact that it enables early identification of risk of infection among individuals and enhances community safety.
Although, the government has made it clear that this app has no privacy concerns and hence, it is mandatory for all employees whether public or private organizations to download the app. Any violations of these directions issued by the government may lead to penalties under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.the government claimed that it has launched this contact tracing app to better equip healthcare authorities to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Underlying Concerns: Legal And Social Perspective
Keeping in mind the necessity of developing the Aarogya Setu app by the Ministry of IT, Government of India, the app by now has raised several concerns by experts and even ethical hackers on the privacy of the application. Critics say that Aarogya Setu could infringe privacy as there was no clarity on how data would be shared between two applications. They are also talking about its legality of making it mandatory to download. The privacy experts have pointed out that the tracker is going to erode people’s liberty especially when its use will be stretched beyond just contact tracing. Currently, there is no legal framework that governs the Aarogya Setu app, beyond the privacy and terms of its use. However, the government is claiming that all the medical and health related aspects of the app are in strict consultation with the Ministry of Health and Family welfare. Apart from these privacy issues, the experts are also talking about the use of Bluetooth for tracking an individual. Besides this, there is also a risk of misidentification or a false positive report if the device is switched off .
This pandemic and its spread has necessitated the development of a tracing app ‘ Aarogya Setu’ which can trace a large number of infected persons and also aware the person from getting infected if he/she has come in contact with any positive person. However, this app has some privacy issues regarding its legality and collection of data, still the government is contending that this app has no such privacy concerns and therefore, it is mandatory for every person to install this app in their mobile phones. However, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said the country lacked a proper data protection law and in addition, the application would be useless for those who don’t have smartphones. Therefore, the idea of coming up with an app which can trace infected individuals and helps in preventing the spread of coronavirus is welcomed but it should also adhere with the privacy concerns and its legality as Right to Privacy is a fundamental Right under the Indian Constitution.
The development of Aarogya Setu, a tracking app, is one of the right steps towards the prevention of spread of coronavirus. As experts are raising questions about various privacy concerns related to this app, the government should need to make it clear on how the Aarogya Setu app works to open source its code. The dominant concern is that this app could become a citizen spying or surveillance tool. Also, it should be made clear by the government of India that the users data collected for tracing will be used only for certain purposes. The app will not reveal anyone’s personal details. What exacerbates the threats is the fact that the government has no clear legislation on privacy to set up an agency to monitor data protection.
Therefore, the government must come up with the legality of the data collections and its source. The development of this app is a welcoming step by the Indian government but there are a few questions that need to be answered by the government too. The government is contending that this app can’t be hacked and as such there are no privacy issues related to its source of data collection, still the recent news of hacking ‘Aarogya Setu’ by a Bangalore based ethical hacker poses many questions on the government contention of no need of worry about any privacy concerns for this app. Furthermore, the privacy oriented concerns that are being raised by various experts regarding the app must be out rightly addressed.
By Sinha Parama “India and covid-19:misinformation” Available at http:/theasiadialogue.com
The Hindu Net desk on 8th May2020
Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. UOI , (2019) 1 SCC 1.
Manavi Kapur , India’s Aarogya setu app is another chapter in its chequered history of data protection, May 14, 2020 at https://scroll.in/article/961847/indias-aarogya-setu
M V Rajeev Gowda, Seven Questions about an app, Indian Express, May 12, 2020.
Assistant Professor, Mody University, Rajasthan.
LLM, Amity Lucknow.