Indian PM instructs nation’s workforce to download COVID-19 app

By on 04/05/2020
Indian PM Narendra Modi is maintaining lockdown measures across swathes of the country while easing restrictions in lower-risk areas. (Image courtesy: The Kremlin).

The Indian government has instructed all public and private sector employees to use its contact-tracing app, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as it begins easing lockdown restrictions in areas less affected by the virus.

The app, Aarogya Setu – which translates as ‘a bridge of health’ – was launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology last month. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) system behind it uses app users’ mobile phone location and Bluetooth data to assess whether they’ve been within six feet of a person infected with COVID-19.

The anonymised data is sent to a server and checked against a database of known cases and their movements. If a person with the app tests positive for coronavirus or has been in close contact with someone who has, the app shares that data with the government.

On Friday, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said that lockdown measures will be extended by another two weeks from 4 May but that there will be “considerable relaxations” in lower-risk areas. To keep infection rates down as the controls are relaxed, the Ministry of Home Affairs said on Friday, “use of Aarogya Setu shall be made mandatory for all employees, both private and public.” Organisations’ bosses will be held responsible “to ensure 100% coverage”, according to Reuters.

The value of such apps is dramatically increased when use is widespread – ensuring that many of those diagnosed with corona already have the app, and thus making it possible to retrace their movements in detail. Officials at the technology ministry and a lawyer who framed the privacy policy for Aarogya Setu told Reuters the app needs to be used by at least 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion people in order to be effective. To date, the app has been downloaded around 83m times by India’s 500m-strong smartphone users.

Privacy concerns reignited

Modi’s announcement has reignited concerns about privacy and security. Udbhav Tiwari, public policy advisor for internet browser company Mozilla, told Reuters that the latest move “should be backed by a dedicated law which provides strong data protection cover and is under the oversight of an independent body”.  

However, the government has argued citizens’ privacy is protected: the identities of those using the app are not known to it nor passed on to third parties, it told Reuters, adding that information will be used “only for administering necessary medical interventions”.

Last month, Australia’s government services minister Stuart Robert also moved to address data privacy concerns over the plan to introduce its corona tracking app. He said all data will remain “securely encrypted” on people’s phones unless they test positive for COVID-19 ­– in which case state health authorities will access it to trace others who may have become infected. He insisted that data on people’s movements will not be available to law enforcement agencies, and authorised the publication of the app’s source code to ensure transparency. 

Other countries to have introduced coronavirus tracing apps include China, South Korea and Singapore.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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