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Covid-19 contact tracing apps are watching you

How covid-19 apps like the Aarogya Setu in other countries are using everything from colour-coded badges to hourly location data

Almost 25 countries have come out with such apps. istockphoto
Almost 25 countries have come out with such apps. istockphoto

Like India, governments around the world are turning to contact-tracing apps to keep a check on the spread of covid-19.

The Union home ministry’s latest lockdown guidelines again highlight the fact that the government’s Aarogya Setu mobile app “enables early identification of potential risk of infection" and hence “acts as a shield for individuals and the community".

From countries like North Macedonia to Estonia, there are almost 25 such government-backed apps, according to a database maintained by MIT Technology Review. New Zealand and the UK are expected to roll out their own versions later this month as countries look for ways to alert users if they have potentially come in contact with an infected person.

The Union government initially made it mandatory for office-goers and non-essential services staff to download the app on their phones. Now, it has left it to employers to advise and ensure that people use the app.

We look at some of these apps and the technology being used to power them.

INDIA (More than 101,000 cases)

The Aarogya Setu app has been making headlines worldwide. India was the only democracy to make the app mandatory for office-goers and non-essential services staff, though the latest guidelines seem to have relaxed the norms somewhat. Aarogya Setu uses a mix of Bluetooth and location data. A user’s self-assessment data, contact data, location and demographic data form the “response data". The government says the data might be shared with ministries and health departments in an “anonymized" manner but would only be kept for 180 days. More than 100 million people have downloaded it but issues related to data transparency and privacy remain.

CHINA (More than 84,000 cases)

The Chinese Health Code system, with colour codes for every person, is probably the strictest. It is mandatory for citizens to follow it and also link it to their national identification number. People are given colour-coded badges depending on their health status and recent travel history: A green code means you can travel safely, yellow means you need to be isolating at home and red signifies that you are a confirmed covid-19 patient who needs to be quarantined. There is no clarity in terms of how the data collected is being used and whether or not it will continue to be used and monitored once the worldwide pandemic subsides.

AUSTRALIA (More than 7,000 cases)

Australia launched the COVIDSafe app on 26 April and it has already been downloaded by more than five million citizens. A dedicated site of the department of health explains that downloading the app is “completely voluntary" and users will be prompted to delete the app after the pandemic. “This will delete all app information on a person’s phone. The information contained in the information storage system will also be destroyed at the end of the pandemic," the website explains. The app uses Bluetooth (a date, time, distance and user reference code system) to contact-trace and alert people. It does not collect location data but does require people to feed in their name, mobile number, postcode and age.

SINGAPORE (More than 28,000 cases)

Singapore’s TraceTogether was actually the first app of its kind that used Bluetooth technology. Its website explains that the “participating devices exchange proximity information" whenever an app detects another device with the same app installed. The app does not collect geo-location data. The only personal data it collects is a user’s mobile number, so the health department can reach them if they have come in contact with a covid-19 case. More importantly, the data collected is stored locally on a user’s device in an encrypted form.

ICELAND (More than 1,800 cases)

Iceland has the highest user penetration (almost 38%) among all apps so far. Even though the Rakning C-19 app uses location data, not Bluetooth, the information is not shared and stays on the user’s phone. But a Bloomberg report noted that since the app relies on location data, it saves the phone’s location several times every hour, deleting it after 14 days. “Using location instead of Bluetooth can give health authorities richer data about the virus’ spread but it also makes it easier for governments to track individuals in a way that could infringe on privacy," the report adds.

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