The Aarogya Setu App, launched by the Ministry of Health, has crossed 50 million downloads on the Android Play Store in 13 days, beating a record previously held by 2016 app Pokemon Go. The app got more than 40 million downloads after Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday mentioned the use of the application as part of his address to the nation on April 14. "To stop the spread of the corona(virus), use the Aarogya Setu mobile app, and encourage others to download this app as well", Modi said, as part of seven pleas he put before the country in his speech where he announced the extension of a nationwide lockdown till May 3.
The World Bank has made a reference to the app too. In its 'South Asia Economic Focus' report, it gave an example of how digital solutions were playing a role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. "India recently launched an app, Aarogya Setu, that uses location data from persons' smartphones to tell users if they have been near someone who tested positive for COVID-19", the report said.
But the app has also faced criticism from cyber security experts who have raised the issue of privacy and protection of data of the citizens who download the app. BOOM tells you all you need to know about the app.
What's the objective of the app?
The app is an initiative of the Ministry of Health, also built with the involvement of the NITI Aayog and is maintained by the National Informatics Centre.
According to the objectives of the app laid out in its app description, this app is has been developed to:
- Help people assess themselves for COVID-19
- Tell users if they have been in contact with somebody who has tested positive
- Make information related to COVID-19 accessible
How does the app work?
Upon registration, users are asked to fill some information about their potential symptoms, if they have come in contact with somebody who may be COVID-19 positive, if they are smokers and their international travel history. "We take this complicated chart that ICMR [Indian Council Of Medical Research] has created about assessing people, and using a few chat-like questions, it determines that and tells you immediately whether you are fine, you are not well, or if you're at a high degree of risk and need to get tested immediately", said Lalitesh Katragadda in an interview to BOOM. Katragadda, an iSpirit Fellow and founder of Indihood, was associated with the development of the app.
Your phone's bluetooth and GPS services plays an important role in helping the app function, according to Katragadda. When two users come in close contact, the bluetooth from both devices speak to each other. Every 30 minutes, the phone also stores latitude-longitude data locally.
These features can be seen from this screenshot below, that is on the Aarogya Setu's page on the iOS App Store.
With both of these information pieces, the app lets you know if you have been in contact with somebody, and tells you if you are at risk, or advises you to get tested at a much earlier stage, according to Katragadda. "Through this, the app can also help identify hotspots ... it will become much more evident." The app also alerts users if somebody they have come in contact with, tests positive after 10 days.
Katragadda says that the data collected by the government through Aarogya Setu is not perpetually going to stay, it does not identify users personally and not all data of users reaches the government in the first place. Data would be wiped out between 30 - 45 days depending on a user's health condition, or if a user has been cured. Data used for research is geofenced and mixed. He also said, "If you uninstall the app, the data is gone."
But Raman Singh Jit Chima, Senior Counsel with Access Now, has expressed some concerns over the app. Chima says that instead of other health interventions, public authorities were more keen at pursuing invasive apps solutions. He has recommended more transparency, citing the example of the criticism faced by Singapore's TraceTogether app. The authorities have clarified that the app will not continue after the pandemic and that you can make a data deletion request - something that Aarogya Setu has not clarified yet. Singaporeans have raised concerns on how they would challenge potential retention orders on these requests. He also cautioned, "If something goes wrong with this, you will see so much skepticism and worry around people working with the ICMR and state governments .. if something goes wrong, it might make the situation worse."
Watch the full interview here.