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India's mandatory Covid-19 app raises privacy concerns

Church leaders say the government's latest coronavirus measure is a violation of a fundamental right
India's mandatory Covid-19 app raises privacy concerns

Motorists ride along a street during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in New Delhi on May 5. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP)

Published: May 05, 2020 06:19 AM GMT

India's government has made it mandatory for government and private sector employees to use the Aarogya Setu mobile application to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, a move which church leaders, activists and political leaders say is a violation of the right to privacy.

The federal government on May 1 issued an order that for the safety of all government staff and others, everyone must download the app on their mobile phones.

“In the name of the Covid-19 pandemic, this government is misusing its emergency power acquired under the pretext of providing a safe healthcare system. This app is another form of surveillance on the people of India to take away their democratic rights,” A.C. Michael, a former member of Delhi Minorities Commission, told UCA News.

“An app, whether managed by the government or a private agency, is dangerous for the survival of democracy. There is no valid reason for making it mandatory. There are many other ways of keeping people informed of Covid-19 updates.

“In times of crisis like now, national leaders across the globe are being tested severely. Some have fallen short, some have risen to the moment, demonstrating resolve, courage, empathy, respect for science and elemental decency. But our leaders are misusing the laws made to tackle ‘terrorists’ by intimidating democratically dissenting citizens and silencing the opposition to its people to its policies.” 

When installing the mobile app, Aarogya Setu stores a registrant's details including name, phone number, profession, gender, age and a list of countries visited in the past 30 days.

The app continuously collects data on the location of the user and cross-references using Bluetooth and GPS to link it to the central government's database to analyze whether the user has come into contact with an infected person.

According to the circular, when a worker heads for the office, he or she must review their status on the app and commute only when the app shows safe or low-risk status.

Employees are advised that if the app shows a message that he or she has a moderate or high risk, he or she should not go to the office and self-isolate for 14 days or until the status becomes safe or low-risk.

“The Supreme Court in the 2017 K.S. Puttaswamy judgment reiterated that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and laid down the proportionality test to assess any state restrictions imposed on said right,” said Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians.

“The extensive personal information that the app secures is against the norm of data minimization. In addition, the privacy policy of the app does not mention the relevant department with which the information may be shared. Lastly, in the absence of any governing legislation, the terms of service and privacy policy play fast and loose with the data retention issue.” 

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said the app is a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a private operator, with no institutional oversight, raising serious data security and privacy concerns.

Gandhi wrote on social media that “technology can help keep us safe, but fear must not be leveraged to track citizens without their consent."

Meanwhile, more than 45 organizations and 100 individuals on May 2 wrote to the prime minister protesting the mandatory use of the Aarogya Setu app for workers in both private and public workplaces.

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