India imposes Covid-19 app despite issues

India Imposes Covid-19 App Despite Issues

Last edited: May 5, 2020
Reading time: 3 minutes, 1 second

India has announced that a contact-tracing app will be compulsory, although most citizens don’t own the smartphones to use it. This measure will apply to all employees as well as residents who live in containment zones.

Quarantining People Based on Zones

The Indian government has announced that public and private sector employees have to install the country’s Covid-19 app. Aarogya Setu (Health Bridge), as it is called, will also be mandatory for people living in highly contaminated ‘red’ zones. The app alerts users who may have come into contact with infected or at-risk residents.

People in red zones cannot leave them except for medical emergencies and working in supplying essential goods and services. Others in the less affected ‘green’ zones will be allowed to resume all activities except what is already prohibited. However, many people feel watched, with house visits and institutional quarantining of persons taking place based on their risk assessment.

Areas that haven’t had new cases in the last three weeks will continue to be designated as ‘green’ zones. The rest will remain ‘red’ or ‘orange’ zones, subject to ongoing stay-at-home orders and extensive restrictions on business activity. This comes at a time when officials have announced that they will extend the lockdown for two more weeks.

A Controversial Covid-19 App

Since its release, Aarogya Setu has become the fastest downloaded app on record, with 83 million users and counting. It uses Bluetooth beacons to log user activities and data, but tracks people without their knowledge, effectively violating their privacy. Available for iOS and Android, the app is not open source, which will make acceptance more difficult.

Moreover, over half of Indian’s mobile phone users don’t own smartphones. Once the self-quarantine began, residents had to send in a selfie at home several times a day. The pics were used to check whether someone was actually at home. If not, the person was then contacted by the authorities, reinforcing the notion of surveillance rather than safety.

This new order may well be impossible to enforce because the app doesn’t run on the phones people in India actually use. What’s more, with around 80 million installs out of a population of 1.35 billion, that’s about 6% of the population. Such a sample can’t be very useful in a country where the biggest cities have upwards of 10 million residents.

Technical Challenges with No Solution in Sight

The Indian government is touting Aarogya Setu as a miracle, but the opposition claims says it’s a vulgar surveillance system. Interestingly, more than half the country use feature phones and cannot download the app – how will enforcing work then? Feature phones often don’t have Bluetooth or GPS, run on 2G or 3G and can’t send or receive data. There has been claims of adapting the app, but at this point there’s nothing to back this up.

Furthermore, critics of contact tracing apps claim that Covid-19 apps simply can’t replace the current labor-intensive task of contact tracing. Although it would be easier to get everyone using an app, internationally they have been relatively unreliable. If India can’t get enough residents to use the app, it won’t fulfil its intended purpose

On May 4, the World Health Organization reported that worldwide there have been almost 240,000 deaths resulting from the virus. India has reported almost 40,000 cases and over 1,300 deaths, with a fraction of the population using Aarogya Setu. Forcing people to download an app that they can’t use will only further divide the population. India is no closer to protecting its population and no amount of posturing will give the country a fighting chance.

Tech journalist
Born in Canada, Natasha has a B.A. in Russian and Slavic Studies from McGill University in Montréal. She is an editor with almost 20 years experience, with IT being one of her favorite topics. She's been using the internet since 1988, and was around when McGill University built the pre-Web era Gopher search engine Archie in 1990.

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