The government is trying to take all the necessary steps that are important to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The government while announcing another extension of the ongoing lockdown has made the use of Aarogya Setu app mandatory for all public and private sector employees to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines that came out yesterday stated that the authorities will make sure that Aarogya Setu app is used by everyone in Containment Zones. The guidelines read, “The local authorities shall ensure 100 percent coverage of Aarogya Setu app among the residents of containment zone”
Since its launch on April 2, The app has been downloaded by 82 million Indians thus far. Yet, it has remained voluntary. But the government aims to make it mandatory to make the surveillance easy. There are over 480,000 central government employees in India.
The Centre has also asked smartphone manufacturers to preinstall the app in new phones. It has also been made mandatory for workers at agricultural produce markets (mandi) and delivery personnel.
Some state governments and district authorities have made it a prerequisite to enter their jurisdiction. Gurgaon, for instance, has made it mandatory for everyone from Delhi, even for those with a valid pass issued by the Delhi government.
The app, through GPS and Bluetooth data assess if a person has come in proximity to a known Covid-19 patient, and assigns them with varying levels of risks. The main reason behind making the app compulsory is its efficiency and it being able to carry out large-scale mapping of Covid-19 in India.
The urgency of digital surveillance has grown since the more reliable medical method of surveillance, the rapid antibody testing, has been suspended by the government due to faulty equipment. The rapid test was planned as a mode of surveillance to detect in a person's blood antibodies that help fight the coronavirus, thus suggesting exposure to the virus.
These tests could have been deployed at a large scale and processed quickly, but faulty equipment has derailed the plan, creating a gaping hole in India's Covid-19 mapping.
Door-to-door survey and thermal screening to identify symptomatic individuals, carried out successfully in small towns, is impractical in a large country such as India. Digital tracing would allow authorities to focus its diagnostic test (RT-PCR) on those marked "high-risk".
Then what’s the problem?
The app has also raised privacy concerns. It has been said by experts that the app requires far more data than what is necessary and falls short of the standards set by contact tracing apps of other countries. Use of GPS-based location data is a major concern.
NITI Aayog has defended the use of the app and said that GPS data helps in finding new hotspots. It claimed that location data is not used by the app on an individual basis, but on an aggregated basis.