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Opinion: Does Aarogya Setu really work?

Aarogya Setu can be a useful tool in the fight against covid-19, but it is no revolutionary solution

The government has now made the app’s source code public.
The government has now made the app’s source code public.

Apprehensions about India’s covid-19 contact tracer Aarogya Setu have centred around privacy but it could be a case of generals fighting the previous war. That war was conducted by civil rights activists against the mission creep of Aadhaar and resulted in a landmark Supreme Court verdict curtailing use of the biometric identifier. In the context of covid-19, however, we might be better served focusing on efficacy rather than privacy.

Let me clarify that privacy is important even during a pandemic. If it becomes necessary for a government to intrude into the lives of citizens, it ought to compensate by being scrupulously transparent about its motives and methods. Aarogya Setu falls far short of that bar. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which rated 25 contact-tracing apps on privacy-related parameters, gave Aarogya Setu just two stars out of five. Last week, MIT downgraded that rating to one star. The lone bright spot was Aarogya Setu’s promise to destroy data after a set period of time. On the downside, MIT found the app insufficiently transparent, overly intrusive in its data collection, lacking safeguards on data usage, and forced upon many citizens instead of being entirely voluntary.

After pressure from privacy advocates to follow the example of nations like Singapore and Australia, the government has made the app’s source code public. This progressive step should help it regain a two-star rating. A bigger issue, however, is the practical weakness of Aarogya Setu. The app relies on GPS and Bluetooth, neither of which is precise enough to deliver trustworthy results. GPS is inaccurate at distances under 5m, while Bluetooth signals are affected dramatically by simple acts like removing a phone from one’s pocket. Since a person’s exposure to the coronavirus is unrelated to whether their phone is in their front pocket, back pocket or bag, the variance in signals from these sources is problematic.

Covid-tracing apps could provide false positives in a number of scenarios. In a hotel, you might charge your phone overnight on a table that is within Bluetooth range of a phone in the next room. You could put the device in a locker in a health club, where it will communicate with phones belonging to people that aren’t working out in close proximity. You could throw it into a satchel placed in a row of school bags during an examination. You could be stuck in a long traffic jam next to a car whose driver later proves to be infected.

High rates of false positives make apps like Aarogya Setu useful only if backed up by comprehensive testing and manual contact tracing. Those are areas where India has fallen short from the beginning of the pandemic. Although testing has been ramped up across the country, there are large divergences between states. One reason Maharashtra has so many more cases than other states is its relative readiness to test.

US President Donald Trump exposed the conflict of interest faced by administrations when he said: “When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases." Gujarat is among Indian states that have taken the lesson to heart. According to news reports, the state’s advocate general, Kamal Trivedi, argued in the Gujarat high court that testing family members of covid-19 positive patients was unwise since it would “create a fear psychosis" by raising the coronavirus tally. Sadly, diseases cannot be made to disappear by eliminating tests.

The Union government’s most prestigious hospital, Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, lost a senior sanitation supervisor, Heera Lal, to covid-19 on 25 May. He had complained of a fever and respiratory discomfort on 16 May but was reportedly not administered a covid-19 test despite his high-risk job. It was only days later, after his conditioned worsened, that the diagnosis was made.

It appears that Aarogya Setu is being treated as a gateway to access services rather than a means to track infections, a deeply misguided approach. The Railways have made it mandatory, while the civil aviation ministry has stopped just short of that by offering a tedious workaround. Private companies are jumping on to the bandwagon, with the food delivery firm Zomato forcing it upon their staff. It is conceivable that office buildings, malls and resident welfare associations will make the app compulsory for visitors.

Deepinder Goyal, Zomato’s founder, wrote in a Twitter message: “In case our delivery partner comes in contact with an infected person or visits a hotspot area, authorities will know at the earliest. This will instantly enable us to isolate the delivery partner, and support him/her for quarantine and treatment." What Goyal should have stated was that any employee judged to be at high risk would be tested immediately at the company’s expense.

Isolating individuals or denying them permission to travel based on an unreliable app signal is unjust punishment. It will inevitably create a backlash, with citizens finding ways to avoid the dreaded Aarogya Setu red zone. For the well-to-do, it would simply mean downloading the app on a spare device that is switched off until the passport is required. As more people game the system, the spread of covid-19 will potentially be facilitated instead of being curbed.

Contact-tracing technology everywhere is falling short of its promise. Iceland’s Rakning C-19 has been downloaded by 40% of the nation’s residents yet Gestur Pálmason, the man overseeing contact-tracing efforts, says it has been far from a game changer. Australia launched Covidsafe with great fanfare in April. Nearly a month later, just one person has been identified using data from it. Properly used, Aarogya Setu could prove a useful tool in the fight against the virus, but it is no revolutionary solution. For it to work at all, it is imperative that the current trend of impositions and punishments be replaced by purely voluntary adoption. If citizens are informed that they have potentially been exposed to an infected individual and are offered accessible, cheap tests, most will do what is best for their own health and, in the process, help contain the spread of the disease.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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