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Apps and contact tracing

As the corona virus spread globally the need has been felt for contact tracking of Covid19 patients and for alerting uninfected persons about the proximity of such patients. According to an email [1] from Globaldata.com three prominent Asian examples are Close Contact Detector from China, Corona 100m from South Korea and Aarogya Setu from India. The Chinese app is accessible on popular apps like QQ, Alipay and WeChat via a QR code and it alerts the user on the proximity of confirmed and suspected patients in the vicinity of the user. The Korean app pulls relevant data from government sources such as the Korea Centers for Disease Control to show when a patient was diagnosed with Covid-19, along with the person’s age, gender and places of visit. Aarogya Setu from India can be downloaded from the App Store for both Android and iPhone. It alerts the user about individuals with infection history in their close proximity among other things.

Quoting from Global Data the Korean app has been downloaded a million times. South Koreas population is 51.7 million. In Singapore only one on five persons have downloaded a similar app [1]. Now, Singapore is a very tech savvy city and its inhabitants are very familiar with apps and other digital facilities, so why this reluctance? In India the down load ratio of Aarogya Setu is one is to ten of smartphone users. 

According to Navkender Singh, Research Director, IDC India, “there are about 450 million smartphone users as compared to 550 million feature phone users in India. About 40-45% of feature phone users own a device at less than Rs 1000. So the cost of ownership, the lack in internet literacy and the rigidity that feature phones have is holding the users back from buying a smartphone”. We know that Arogya Setu works only on smartphones. Therefore out of 1.3 billion Indians, even if every smartphone user downloaded the app, they would be about 42 percent of the total population. With just 50 million downloads this further reduces to 3.8 percent.

This is just not enough to make these types of apps effective. They needs many more people to download and use the app. Why the reluctance to download? The elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, least of all the government, is security and privacy arising out of the always on and always discoverable location and Bluetooth.

There are technical issues. In the always on mode the battery of the phone drains very fast and requires more frequent charging. However, that is the least of the worries. Keeping the Bluetooth on and discoverable means that a connection can be made with any other bluetooth device which need not be another smartphone with the app. It could be any device including that of a hacker who can access your smartphone through this link. Because of this weakness iPhones do not allow Bluetooth to operate in the background and blocks the movement of data from the phone to any other device. Therefore these types of apps will not work on iPhones.

France has asked Apple to remove this feature as it is blocking the tracing app [2]. While Apple and Google are working on their own contact tracing app and hope to release them in May [4, 5, 6, 7], French authorities are not satisfied and may go for a solution without Google and Apple. The hitch is that the Apple-Google app will alert the user but data will remain on their phones but France and the EU insist that the data must go to a central server under the control of government health services. 

Here lies the rub. Many academicians and security experts refer to this as “mission creep” where the government uses this opportunity to mount surveillance on its citizens. Then there is the privacy issue. The medical status of an individual has to remain private and anonymous. These app violate this requirement. We are seeing many cases where persons who have been affected or who are handling such cases are being socially ostracised. These types of apps will only serve to exacerbate the situation.

A closer study of the Aarogya Setu app reveals some of these problems. After downloading the app the Terms of Service and Privacy is presented for agreement.

Unless this is done one cannot proceed further. Note the ‘persuasive’ argument to compel you to agree to the ToS and PP. There is no Disagree button and a blanket assurance can hardly be called a Privacy Policy. What happens if there is a breach? The data will only be shared with “The Government of India”. The GoI has many wings hence this is a very sweeping statement.

Next your telephone number is required and the reason for asking for this information is also explained by another screen. It becomes clear from this that you are being constantly tracked. This is nothing but “mission creep”. 

Next two screens ask for personal details. Why are these needed for an app which is just supposed to track contacts and alert you if you are in the proximity of a known infected person? There is one more screen which asks for countries to which you might have travelled in the last 30 days. Predictably China is the first country followed by six other affected countries.

It is clear from the screens that contact tracing is not the only application of this app. In an article in the Hindu [8] this is further explored. The article illustrates how the Chinese app is now being used as an used as an e-pass for allowing access to public transport. Though Aarogya Setu is voluntary but, like Aadhaar it might just become another entry gatekeeper according to the authors Kashish Aneja, and Nikhil Pratap.

The integration of Aarogya Setu with Survey of India maps and its crowdsourcing app Sahyog is explored in another article [9]. Such an integration will further impact privacy of those who have downloaded Aarogya Setu. While Aarogya Setu will alert the user of proximity to infected individuals, the transfer of this information via Sahyog to the SoI maps will expose the location history of these individuals to all users of the maps. 

What do we need really as individuals? We need to be safe. Danger is not just proximity of an infected individual but also infected objects like handrails, door knobs, tables and other surfaces on which the virus has been deposited by infected persons. Doctors do say that just passing by an infected person is not enough to infect you. It requires interaction with such a person. So how does such tracking and proximity sensing applications help an individual? Have we seen any analysis of how these apps have performed in China, South Korea and Singapore, or for that matter India? 

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