Coronavirus tracing app raises privacy concerns in India

The Indian government requires the Aarogya Setu app be used by all workers, both private and public, and by members of the military. (AP)
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Updated 08 May 2020

Coronavirus tracing app raises privacy concerns in India

  • Monitoring technology has prompted a raft of questions about privacy, security and potential data breaches
  • India still does not have a comprehensive data privacy law to protect people’s personal data

NEW DELHI: As India enters an extended coronavirus lockdown, the government is actively pursuing contact tracing to help control infections. At the heart of the effort in the country of 1.3 billion people is a smartphone app that evaluates users’ infection risk based on location services such as Bluetooth and GPS.
In April, India launched the Aarogya Setu app, which helps people identify whether they have been near someone who tested positive for the virus. Since then, the app has been downloaded more than 90 million times in a country with a smartphone user base of about 500 million. To popularize it, a campaign featuring Bollywood celebrities was launched.
But the monitoring technology has prompted a raft of questions about privacy, security and potential data breaches — and whether it compromises civil liberties and gives the government snooping powers.
“Aarogya Setu is a form of surveillance and inflicts tangible privacy injury,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.
On Wednesday, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior minister, said the app was “robust” in terms of privacy protection and data security. The government also said no data or security breach had been identified with the app after concerns about potential security issues were raised by tech experts.
Mobile tracing apps to help contain infections have already been developed in the US, China, Singapore, Australia and many European countries. Other countries are scrambling to deploy their own smartphone tools. But in India, the technological intervention has exacerbated concerns like in no other country.
India still doesn’t have a comprehensive data privacy law to protect people’s personal data. What is more alarming, experts say, are sweeping orders that make the use of the app mandatory for many Indians.
The government requires the Aarogya Setu app be used by all workers, both private and public, and by members of the military. Installation of the app is also mandatory in regions declared as containment zones. Stranded Indians abroad who wish to be repatriated also need to install it on their mobile phones before entering the country.
Now, the police are stepping in.
In Noida, a burgeoning satellite town half an hour’s drive from New Delhi, police have made it a punishable offense if people don’t use the app.
Millions of Indians, many of them oblivious of any privacy concerns, have enthusiastically downloaded the app at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s urging. Some were encouraged by their employers who said they cannot work without the app.
“It will be very good if almost everyone uses it,” said Umesh Ram, a food delivery rider.
But some are cautious.
Satish Kumar Rastogi, an electrician, recently deleted the app from his phone. “Imagine if I put wrong details by mistake, then it will give wrong information about me,” Rastogi said.
The government has not said if it plans to impose fines on people who don’t install the app, but hopes that if infections are tracked with the help of the app, more people will be able to resume at least part of their normal routines. India is the hardest-hit country in South Asia, with over 46,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 1,500 deaths.
Critics have raised concerns about the possibility of breaches of the database and fear the monitoring technology could be used to collect personal information. They also say the app is vague about which government departments will have access to the database.
“The app needs some independent oversight mechanism,” said Anirudh Burman, a scholar at Carnegie India.
Most privacy rights organizations say if the government makes the app’s source code publicly available, it will increase transparency.
The monitoring technology is also opposed by the main opposition Congress party. Last week its leader, Rahul Gandhi, called the app “a sophisticated surveillance system.”
Abhishek Singh, the chief executive of MyGovIndia, which developed Aarogya Setu, said the app “will not reveal anyone’s personal details” and the “data in the app is completely secure.”
“No third party will be given access to the data,” Singh said. “The app is secure and no one should be worried about privacy concerns.”
India is not new to privacy violations and data breaches. In 2018, a controversial billion-member biometric database called “Aadhaar” was breached, putting the identity details of more than 1 billion citizens at risk.
Similar cases of data breaches have been reported during the pandemic.
Many Indian states published quarantine lists on their official websites which included names of people who were suspected of being virus carriers. The app, experts say, presents similar concerns but on a much larger scale.
Apart from the privacy concerns, there is little evidence that the app will be effective without widespread virus testing, which India lacks.
India is testing around 75,000 samples daily. Health experts say this number is not enough.
A recent study by epidemiologists at Oxford University estimated that 60 percent of the population in any given area need to use a contact tracing technology, combined with other measures such as broader testing and the quarantining of vulnerable people, for the app to be able to contain the virus.
“India has to couple contact tracing technology with far more broader testing. Testing is the primary solution to contact the infections,” said Dr. Anant Bhan, a public health and bioethics expert.

US presidential debate: Biden warns Iran will ‘pay price’ for election interference

Updated 23 October 2020

US presidential debate: Biden warns Iran will ‘pay price’ for election interference

  • Trump and Biden go toe-to-toe on foreign policy, COVID-19 and race
  • Final debate paints two stark pictures of America’s future

NEW YORK: Joe Biden warned Iran would “pay a price” for interfering in the US election if he is elected president.

During a more orderly second debate with President Donald Trump Thursday, the former vice president looked to take the initiative on foreign attempts to influence voters.

Moderator Kirsten Welker asked Biden about revelations from intelligence officials that Russia and Iran had attempted to meddle in the election and obtained voter registration information.

“We know that Russia has been involved, China has been involved to some degree, and now we learn that Iran has been involved,” Biden said, “They will pay a price if I’m elected.”


John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said this week that Iran used the information to send threatening emails to voters in Florida.  On Thursday, the US Treasury Department responded with new sanctions against five Iranian entities accused of spreading disinformation and division ahead of the election.

Biden’s warning to Iran would have rankled with Trump and his foreign policy team. The president has imposed a maximum pressure policy on Tehran by withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear deal and imposing tough sanctions.

Trump accuses the previous administration, in which Joe Biden deputized to Barack Obama, of allowing Iran to further its missile program and expand its militias across the Middle East.

On Russia, Biden said Moscow did not want him to get elected, because they know he would be tough on them.

“They know that I know them. And they know me,” Biden said.

Trump said: “There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”

He accused Biden of receiving money from foreign companies.

“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said, arguing that he had released all of his tax returns, unlike the president.


“Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption,” Biden said. 

While the second and final debate ahead of the Nov. 3 election was a calmer affair than the first one, it was laden with attacks. 

The rules were different this time: microphones were muted for two-minute stretches to allow the other an uninterrupted answer. 

Welker kept the contentious rivals under control, and made sure things were clear and organized at the venue in Belmont University in Nashville. She got the best reviews of the night. 

A viewer tweeted: “Kristen Welker is putting on a master class in how to moderate a presidential debate.”

The two candidates squared off on foreign policy, the economy, race, healthcare, and climate change. 


The debate kicked off with exchanges over the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 in the US, where most states are seeing a dramatic resurgence of the virus. 

Trump defended the way his administration handled COVID-19. “We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease that came from China,” he said.

The president argued that the mortality rate has decreased and a vaccine would probably be ready before the end of the year. 

“We’re rounding the turn. We’re learning to live with it,” said Trump. 

“We’re learning to die with it,” replied Biden, who criticized the president for not having a plan to address the crisis.

“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said. 


Pivoting to a report that the current administration could not locate the parents of more than 500 children detained at the border with Mexico and separated from their families, Trump said children are brought across the border by “coyotes and drug cartels.” 

Defending his immigration policies, Trump said the border is now more secure than ever. 

He said he is “trying very hard” to reunite children with their parents. 

Biden called the Trump administration’s inability to locate the parents “criminal.” He said Trump’s family separation policy made America a laughingstock: “It violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”

The president then pressed Biden to answer “who built the cages” that were shown in media reports. Biden dodged the answer. 

The cages were built in 2014 by the Obama administration. 

Biden then promised, if elected, to put in motion reforms that would provide a pathway to citizenship, protected from deportation, for undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers”.  “We owe them,” Biden said.

Discussion heated up when Welker breached the race topic, as the country continues to contend with civil unrest over racial injustice and police brutality.  

Biden said the US has “never, ever lived up” to the promise of liberty and equality for all, a principle upon which it was founded.

Trump said that, other than Abraham Lincoln, “nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump.”

He attacked Biden’s support for the 1994 crime law, which critics say has led to mass incarceration.

But Biden turned to the camera and addressed voters directly:  “You know who I am. You know who he is.” 

Biden called the president a “racist” who “pours fuel on every single racist fire.”


“I think I have great relationships with all people. I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump responded.

Twelve days before the election, American voters were able to watch unfold two visions for the future of their country. It is hard to tell whether the candidates were able to broaden their appeal beyond their own bases and attract the undecided voters, whose numbers are shrinking by the day. 

Millions of them are already standing in long lines outside polling stations, braving night and chilly temperatures, to cast their early, final votes.