Experts raise concerns over Aarogya Setu
The main function of Aarogya Setu is to keep a track of people who come close to each other while having the applications on their phones.
The government’s decision to make it mandatory for people to install its Aarogya Setu mobile application has inadequate legal basis and exposes users to possible surveillance, according to experts who are now appealing for the directive to be rolled back or stronger safeguards to be introduced, even as the tool triggered a political spat between the government and the opposition Congress on Saturday.
The main function of Aarogya Setu is to keep a track of people who come close to each other while having the applications on their phones. Their contact history can be pulled up if any one of these persons tests positive for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which will make tracing of all contacts who would have been exposed to an infectious person faster.
The home ministry’s decision on Friday to make it must for people going to work from Monday onwards to install the application was criticised by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who said the tool was “intrusive” before Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad responded by calling the claim “a lie”.
“The Aarogya Setu app is a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a private operator, with no institutional oversight - raising serious data security and privacy concerns. Technology can help keep us safe; but fear must not be leveraged to track citizens without their consent,” Gandhi said in a tweet on Saturday.
To this, Prasad responded with two tweets: “Daily a new lie. Aarogya Setu is a powerful companion which protects people. It has a robust data security architecture. Those who indulged in surveillance all their lives, won’t know how tech can be leveraged for good!”
“Aarogya Setu is now being appreciated globally. The App is NOT outsourced to any private operator. Mr. Gandhi really high time that you stop outsourcing your tweets to your cronies who do not understand India,” he said.
Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal said the need for a digital contact tracing method was understandable. “However, there is no law passed by the parliament authorizing the creation and making mandatory of this app which is in contravention of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Act and rules and regulations. So, while it could be used as an emergency measure (in this case for tracing Covid patients), it could open up a Pandora’s box of legal challenges for the government,” said cyber law expert Pavan Duggal.
While such applications exist in other parts of the world, privacy experts point out that India’s is the only one with a source code that is not open for review.
Around 45 organisations and more than 100 individuals on Saturday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and electronics and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad against the mandatory use of the Aarogya Setu app for workers.
“While the government initially claimed that the use of Aarogya Setu would be purely voluntary, downloading the app was soon made mandatory for all Central Armed Police Forces personnel and employees of Prasar Bharati,” the letter signed by the groups stated. The move could also violate privacy laws as well as the Puttaswamy privacy judgement, the letter says.
A government representative, however, denied that there were privacy issues.
Abhishek Singh of MyGov termed the concerns as non-issues and said that the app is mandatory only till the pandemic exists. “Till the epidemic law is in force, only those who are travelling to offices will have to download the app. Once the epidemic is over, a user can delete the app,” Singh said.