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Image credit: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

India requires all workers to use its COVID-19 tracking app

This is despite privacy worries.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
May 3, 2020
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 05: Indians hold candles and smartphone flashlights on a deserted main road for nine minutes to show solidarity in the fight against the coronavirus as a nationwide lockdown continues on April 05, 2020 in New Delhi, India. India is under a 21-day lockdown to fight the spread of the virus. After an appeal by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, millions of Indians on Sunday switched off lights in their houses at 9 pm for nine minutes to show solidarity in the country's fight against the coronavirus. The lockdown has already disproportionately hurt marginalized communities due to the loss of livelihood and lack of food, shelter and other basic needs. The lockdown has left tens of thousands of out-of-work migrant workers stranded, with rail and bus services shut down. The closing of state borders has caused disruption in the supply of essential goods, leading to inflation and fear of shortages. There are more than 3,500 positive coronavirus cases in India with currently 99 deaths. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

COVID-19 contact tracing apps are frequently voluntary in those countries that have rolled them out so far, but India’s is effectively mandatory. The country’s home ministry will require that all workers, public or private, use its Aarogya Setu app starting May 4th. Company and government leaders will be responsible for enforcing adoption, officials said, and there will be “punishment” if there’s negligence.

The app has already been downloaded 80 million times, and the aim is to not only reach every smartphone user in the country (about 350 million) but reach basic phone users through an interactive voice system.

Like in other countries, widespread adoption of contact tracing apps could prove vital to curbing the spread of the new coronavirus. They might reduce or eliminate the need for further lockdowns while humanity waits for a vaccine. However, governments have generally shied away from requiring these apps, in part to assuage fears they might be used for mass surveillance. India clearly isn’t as worried about public perception.

Privacy activists aren’t happy, to no one’s surprise. Although the app relies on anonymous device identities and stores encrypted records of Bluetooth interactions with other devices, the Internet Freedom Foundation said the app doesn’t meet data protection standards or provide enough transparency for algorithms. Mozilla warned that it wasn’t certain how Aarogya Setu’s data would be used, and that there weren’t sufficient privacy laws to protect the public. This won’t necessarily lead to abuses of power, but there might not be much to stop those misuses if they do occur.

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