How can Aarogya be made mandatory, Kerala High Court asks Centre
The Kerala high court asked the Union government on Tuesday to explain how the Aarogya Setu can be made mandatory when many do not have smartphones, giving it time till May 18 to file its response and also explain how the personal data of users will be protected.
The hearing pertained to a petition challenging the Union government’s notification making Aarogya Setu – a tool meant to trace the contacts of people in case they are infected with the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) – mandatory for when people travel to offices. Since that notification, the government has also made it must for travelling in trains.
“There are valid concerns about the mandatory condition on the employers. Many have no smartphones. How do you propose to implement this?,” said justice Anu Sivaraman, while also refusing to stay the order -- a request by the petitioners. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” the judge said.
The bench comprised of justices Sivaraman and MR Anitha.
The counsel for the Central government said that they will place a statement on record. “A privacy protocol has been developed. It (Aarogya Setu app) has been recognised as the best app in the world fighting Covid-19 right now. Around 130 COVID-19 hotspots have been identified. Lakhs of people are downloading the app every day,” the counsel said.
The Union electronics and IT ministry on Monday released a protocol, defining conditions for the access and sharing of the sensitive personal information people provide on the Aarogya Setu. The collection must be strictly for the purpose of government’s health responses, and the data can be stored for six months, the protocols said.
The contact tracing app was launched on April 2 and 96 million people registered on it till Monday, according to an IT ministry official who gave the figure during the government’s daily briefing on the crisis. The app was developed by a team under the Niti Aayog and is managed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
Last week, Thrissur district Congress Committee general secretary John Daniel moved the high court saying the Centre’s April 29 directive for office-goers to download Aarogya Setu violated the fundamental rights of citizens, and that there chances that the personal data could be misused.
“We are glad the court has decided to look into the matter and has directed the government to explain based on which considerations the Aarogya Setu app was made mandatory, especially because a majority of Indians don’t have access to smartphones,” said Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, associate counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) and one of members of the petitioner’s legal team.
“To make having a smartphone a precondition for accessing essential services like the railways has an exclusionary impact. There are also concerns about the technical design of the app such as its centralised model, excessive data collection and weak anonymization. Today’s hearing was focussed on practical difficulties that will arise due to Aarogya Setu being made compulsory for all employees,” she added.
IFF has detailed in a working paper the privacy and security concerns with the Aarogya Setu, which can potentially lead to surveillance, and the lack of legal frameworks that can allow such a tool to be deployed in India.
Representatives from the IT ministry and NIC refused to comment on the hearing on record.
“The data that the Aarogya Setu handles is secure and keeping these concerns in mind, we issued the protocols for the regulation of the app yesterday. The protocols detail how that data is going to be processed and fixes accountability,” said a senior IT ministry official, who is working on the government’s response to the petition.