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India plans use of Aarogya Setu app as e-pass to track citizen movement when COVID lockdown is relaxed

As the Government of India announced a second phase of lockdown till May 3, it is also putting in place a graded system for relaxation in some safe areas. To further this goal, the government is encouraging citizens to download and use its location-based mobile application Aarogya Setu. Going forward, the plan is to use it as an e-pass for people to move around the city freely if the users’ app shows green colour with “you are safe” message on the screen. This is much on the lines of how the Chinese government used a color-coded smartphone app to check movement of citizens. This new feature is under development and will soon be introduced.

Arogya Setu is a COVID-19 contact tracing app developed by the Ministry of Electronics and IT. It detects and tracks the user’s movement with the help of GPS and Bluetooth sensors and sends out a notification if they come in contact with infected people by using its database and algorithms. Users have to enter personal information while registering on the app and the data will be shared only with the Government of India and does not include third parties as mentioned in the app’s privacy policy.

“Aarogya Setu Mobile App is an important weapon in the fight against COVID-19. It is critical because if someone is tested positive, people who came in contact with them can be identified,” Prof. K. VijayaRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to Government of India, had told India Today TV in an interview. He highlighted that in times to come the government is mulling using this app as an e-pass to facilitate travel from one place to another.

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So how does the app work?

The Aarogya Setu app can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. On opening the app, it asks for permission to access the Bluetooth and location of the mobile phone. The app works only when registered with a mobile number and verified via an OTP. An optional form is also shown which asks for personal details such as name, age, occupation, and foreign travel history in last 30 days.

There is a ‘Self-Assessment Test’ feature on the Arogya Setu App. In this, some questions related to the health and symptoms of the user are also asked. Based on the answers, the app shows the risk level in green and yellow colour code. If it is a  green colour code and the text says ‘you are safe’ then there is no risk. If it shows a   yellow colour code displayed with the text, ‘You are at high risk’ then you should contact the helpline. The app also suggests action items for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing, hygiene and staying at home precautions.

While right now, the app really doesn’t seem to be of much use, it is only when its use is made mandatory and everyone is using it is when the BlueTooth and location feature of the app will kick into action. As more and more people use it and enter their details, the app can warn users if they are coming in close proximity of a COVID infected person or even someone who has come in contact with a COVID patient. Once lockdown restrictions go and movement is allowed, it can also warn citizens, if one is entering a high-risk zone.

Since its launch, it has seen over 50 million downloads and has largely received positive reviews on Google Play Store. In fact, it has become No.1 free app in the Indian mobile application market.

Also Read: Apps and maps helping to monitor COVID-19 spread in India

What was the Chinese model?

Courtesy: AP Photo/Olivia Zhang

The Chinese government had joined hands with tech giants Alibaba and Tencent for the color-coded health rating system to track millions of people daily. The system assigned three colors to people — green, yellow or red — on the basis of their travel and medical histories. Whether a person should be quarantined or allowed in public spaces was decided based on the color code.  Citizens had to log in the app using pay wallet services like Alibaba’s Alipay, Ant’s wallet, etc. Only those people who were assigned a green color code after they entered their details and health updates, were allowed in metro stations, offices and other public places after using the designated QR code. Further, checkpoints at most public places kept a stringent watch on the codes and body temperatures of people. At one point reportedly more than 200 Chinese cities were using this system with plans to expand it nationwide.

What about data privacy concerns?

While that is a legitimate concern, however, countries across the world including Singapore, UK and many European countries are using extensive mobile phone surveillance of citizens to track their movement.

The Indian government has said that personal data collected by the app is encrypted and stays secure in the user’s mobile. “All communication from the app, whether to another device or server, are secure and anonymized, and cannot be brute-forced. The app has been thoroughly and rigorously tested for security vulnerabilities by leading academic and industry experts,” Prof. K. VijayRaghavan added.

The app is available in 11 languages including English, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Odiya.

So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and download it and check if you are safe.

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