The purpose of a contact-tracing app is to help find those an infected person may have come in contact with, and contain the spread of the disease by alerting contacts.
Aarogya Setu was the top downloaded app in India on the Google Play Store as of Friday, with over 50 million downloads, displacing more popular ones like UC Browser, TikTok, Zoom, and Google Pay. It is also among the apps ‘Popular this week’ on the Apple Play Store.
During the lockdown, connectivity apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and gaming and entertainment apps have seen higher downloads, making Aarogya Setu one of the few government apps to see such high downloads, even though it has been listed as a “health and fitness” app.
The exponential number of downloads can be attributed to a call by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking people to have the app on their mobiles, combined with the government's push for downloading of the app through other channels, such as MyGov Corona Newsdesk on Telegram.
The human resource development ministry in a communication earlier in April had asked students, teachers, and their family members to download the app. Besides, the Prime Minister's Office, the NITI Aayog and other ministries are looking to push the number of downloads.
Piyush Goyal, Union commerce and industry minister, is also learnt to have been asking businesses, start-ups and other industries to download Aarogya Setu. The department of telecom has also been pushing SMSes asking people to download the app. It has also been reported that draft standard operating procedure guidelines issued to e-commerce companies make it mandatory for their staff to install the app.
However, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) asserted that downloading the app was not mandatory.
“Downloading the app is purely voluntary. There is a suggestion to integrate it with the e-pass system so that only people who are not at risk are allowed to venture out. Around five-six states have already implemented it,” said Abhishek Singh, CEO of MyGov and the national
e-governance division within MeitY, which has developed the app.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and policy director at Access Now, a non-profit advocacy group, said: “The government may try to make it mandatory for the app to be downloaded, but whether it is constitutional is a different matter. Under the Epidemic Diseases Act, the Centre has limited powers because health is a state subject. States can, however, issue several rules. Under the Disaster Management Act also, the Centre can’t force state governments to change what they’re doing. States may also refuse to give the data to the Centre.”
If made mandatory, people may download the app out of trust or fear, similar to how most people were asked to get an Aadhaar number, he said.
Ever since the launch of Aarogya Setu, concerns have been raised about privacy of citizens being put at risk because of the app, in case the data is misused.
“The data gathered by Aarogya normally resides on the phone of the user and is pushed to the server only if the person is classified as high risk. The app has been hosted by the NIC (National
Informatics Centre) on MeitY empanelled cloud service provider — AWS's (Amazon Web Service's) servers located in India. The servers are under complete control of the NIC and the data is encrypted at source to ensure that privacy is fully ensured,” said Singh.
“The data stored by the app on your phone is deleted within 30 days. If you come in close contact with a Covid patient, your data will be deleted from the servers in 45 days, and for high-risk or those who test positive, the data will get deleted in 60 days,” he said.
A study at Oxford found that in a city of a million, 80 per cent of all the smartphone users, or 56 per cent of the overall population, should be using such an app for it to be successful in identifying people at higher risk of contracting the infection.