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Why India Must Not Force Citizens to Use Covid Tracking App

Aarogya Setu App. Photo: Government of India

Aarogya Setu App. Photo: Government of India

The chattering classes fear that Modi’s political outfit Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might use the personal details of citizens to get political advantage in a voting system that is increasingly becoming digital.

By Rakesh Raman

As India is increasingly becoming an authoritarian state under Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, the government is forcing people to use a controversial “Aarogya Setu” mobile app for coronavirus contact tracing. People fear that this is yet another attempt by the government to steal their personal information for political manipulations.

According to MIT Technology Review, India is currently the only “democratic” nation in the world that is making its coronavirus tracking app mandatory for millions of people. MIT Technology Review has developed Covid Tracing Tracker, which is a database of global contact tracing apps.

The experts have raised serious data security and privacy concerns about the app. But the government has made it mandatory for millions of government employees. Those who won’t use the app may risk losing their jobs or getting jailed.

The Indian government imposed the use of “Aarogya Setu” app through a curt circular that made it compulsory for all government employees to use it. The app not only collects the coronavirus-related details of the user, but it also collects personal information which can be misused by the government in multiple ways.

The chattering classes fear that Modi’s political outfit Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might use the personal details of citizens to get political advantage in a voting system that is increasingly becoming digital. The lack of transparency in the app data handling at the backend gives an impression of subterfuge.

There is also a possibility that the Modi government may determine the religion of a person from the name and other details collected through the app in order to target them with discriminatory, anti-Muslim laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR), and National Register of Citizens (NRC) announced by Modi and his Home Minister Amit Shah.

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Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has expressed his concerns by calling the app a “sophisticated surveillance system” and questioned its reliability on data security and privacy issues.

It is largely believed that BJP wins most elections in India by tampering with the electronic voting machines (EVMs). Since the citizens and opposition parties are raising concerns about EVMs and demanding voting on ballot papers, BJP is contriving new methods to win elections deceptively. “Aarogya Setu” app can be an effective tool in that ploy.

Earlier, Modi’s BJP tried to impose a connectivity between Indian citizens’ Aadhaar numbers and voters’ identity. But the scheme did not work. Aadhaar is a 12-digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on behalf of the Government of India. This number serves as a proof of identity and address, anywhere in India.

Modi had even introduced his personal “Narendra Modi App” or “NaMo App” to collect personal details of citizens. A French security researcher Elliot Alderson, who was informing about the vulnerabilities in Modi’s NaMo App, said that Modi’s Android application silently sends users’ data without their consent. This data includes the IP address and a unique identifier of the user’s phone.

Now, Modi is forcing Indians to use “Aarogya Setu” app under the cover of coronavirus emergency. People argue that even after collecting the virus details of citizens, the Modi government will not be able to combat the disease because its healthcare system is crumbling.

Instead of dealing with the coronavirus crisis in a scientific manner, Modi – who is an illiterate politician – is asking Indians to bang their kitchen utensils and burn candles to handle the crisis.

As a result of Modi government’s failure to check the coronavirus contagion, India has become the epicenter of pandemic. Although the Modi government is downplaying the effect of disaster by giving wrong data about the disease, independent research reports suggest that India will have around 1.3 million coronavirus cases by May 2020 and the infection will eventually reach 20% of the population or nearly 300 million (30 crore) people.

So, instead of forcing people to use the “Aarogya Setu” app, the Indian government should first focus on improving the healthcare and administrative systems in the country to combat the threat from coronavirus.

By Rakesh Raman, who is a national award-winning journalist and social activist. He is the founder of a humanitarian organization RMN Foundation which is working in diverse areas to help the disadvantaged and distressed people in the society. He also creates and publishes a number of digital publications and research reports on different subjects. These publications include the “Covid Health Bulletin” that covers global coronavirus news and views.

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