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Govt eases Aarogya Setu app requirements

By Amrita Madhukalya, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 17, 2020 11:42 PM IST

The Union government’s guidelines for the fourth phase of the nationwide curbs to check the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has eased the requirement for office-goers to mandatorily install the Aarogya Setu mobile application, asking employers instead to ensure “on best effort basis” their staff have the tool.

A government official said that while it was not the government’s plan to make Aarogya Setu mandatory, the new rules represented a further rethink on pushing people to use the mobile application particularly after some began finding workarounds that defeated its purpose. The app is still mandatory for those taking the special trains or arriving from abroad by the repatriation flights.

“We want users to feel that they need to download it, and making it mandatory to download was having the opposite effect. There were also some flaws that we were made aware of: in some cases, users kept screenshots of the results of the self-assessment saying they are safe and using it repeatedly; in others, many users deleted the app after downloading it,” said Abhishek Singh, CEO of MyGov and the National e-Governance Division (NeGD).

The tool has been criticised by independent software researchers for having vulnerabilities and by privacy experts for collecting excess sensitive data that could aid in illegal surveillance.

In the guidelines issued by the ministry of home affairs on Sunday evening, the government said: “With a view to ensure safety in offices and work places, employers on best effort basis should ensure that the application is installed by all employees having compatible mobile phones to put in best efforts to ensure that the contact-tracing app is downloaded.”

“District authorities have been asked to advise individuals to install the Aarogya Setu application on compatible mobile phones and regularly update their health status on the app. This will facilitate timely provision of medical attention to those individuals who are at risk,” it added.

Singh, however, said that states have the liberty to make the app mandatory. “Some states have stricter norms than what the Centre has spelt out. So, if any state wants to download it, it is within the legal framework to do so,” he said.

Till now, the app has been downloaded by 105 million smart phone users on the Android and iOS systems. The government recently released a version for KaiOS for the 110 million Jio users in the country.

The government has made it mandatory for those taking trains and Indian nationals arriving by flights as part of the repatriation missions.

A senior official of the IT ministry, who asked not to be named, said the app also had no use for those using cheaper phones with no smartphone capability such as installing applications. “It was pointed out that the app is ineffective in the case of feature phone users,” the official said.

As per IT ministry estimates, there are 1.2 billion mobile phone users in India, and only 350 million have smartphones. For the remaining 900 million feature phone users, the government has an IVRS-based telesurvey. But success on the survey remains limited, as the user has to place the call on the number ‘1921’ which then prompts a survey.

IT ministry officials said that many people are unaware of the telesurvey and very few have been reached out to through it. “We have placed 0.6 million calls and 0.2 million people have taken the survey,” an IT ministry official said.

The Internet Freedom Foundation said that while the amended guidelines were an improvement, concerns about mass surveillance and data breaches remained unaddressed. “The manner in which the term “best efforts” is interpreted by the government also remains to be seen and it will determine whether the app is still mandatory for all practical purposes. More detailed statement to follow tomorrow,” the IFF said on twitter.

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