India is aggressively pushing a state-backed contact tracing app to fight the spread of COVID-19, raising fears that the world’s second-most populous nation is on its way to Chinese-style methods of high tech social control.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has touted its app, Aarogya Setu, or “Health Bridge,” as a key tool in fighting the deadly coronavirus. With more than 70,000 people already infected, the number of cases in India is expected to exceed China, the origin of the outbreak, within a week.
Like many apps being rolled out around the world, Aarogya Setu uses Bluetooth signals on smartphones to record when people come in close contact with one another, so that contacts can be quickly alerted when a person tests positive for COVID-19.
But the Indian app also uses GPS location data to augment the information gathered via Bluetooth and build a centralized database of the spread of the infection—an approach avoided by most countries for privacy reasons.
And it mimics China’s health QR code system with a feature that rates a person’s likely health status with green, orange or red colours, signifying whether the individual is safe, at high risk or a carrier of the virus.
On top of that, the federal government earlier this month made use of the app mandatory for all public and private sector employees returning to work as the world’s biggest lockdown eases—drawing sharp criticism from digital rights’ advocates.
It made India the world’s only democratic country to make the use of a contact tracing app mandatory for its citizens, according to Software Freedom Law Center.
“The government is virtually forcing you and taking your data without consent,” said B.N. Srikrishna, a former Supreme Court judge, who led an effort to draft India’s first data-privacy law.
“Once your fundamental rights are being breached left and right, without anybody to question you, and if the courts are not going to help you, you’re even worse than China.”
But the Modi government, which has drawn international criticism for its treatment of the country’s large Muslim minority, is not backing down though.
The railway ministry, which is currently running special trains to take migrant workers and others to their home towns, has ordered all passengers to download Aarogya Setu “before commencing their journey”.
A paramilitary force guarding India’s airports and the metro train stations in capital New Delhi has proposed a similar plan for all passengers, according to Indian media reports.
A spokesman for the paramilitary CISF said it had made no such recommendations to the government, while the Delhi Metro said it was yet to finalise its plan to resume services.
And in Noida, a hub for smartphone manufacturing on the outskirts of New Delhi, police are using the country’s criminal code to ensure everyone on the road has downloaded the app.