Are government bodies creating surveillance state through contact tracing apps?

Health emergency has seen many countries to use contact tracing technology to track, test and treat infected people. Epidemiologists rely on social knowledge graph data to track all interaction of infected person with non-infected persons, previously they were using conversational interaction as tool, but with advancement of technology, contact tracing has improved alot but has raised concerns on data privacy and usage by agencies.

Technology used for contact tracing

  • BTS visitor location register of telecom tower which gives list of all mobile devices latched on network in a region spanning across approx 1 km
  • Geolocation data from smartphone’s GPS gives location accuracy of 10m
  • Bluetooth, 21 year old tech captures nearby interaction in form of ID
  • Regulated movement captured by government on portal

How contact tracing works?

In general, most apps use mix of GPS location and Bluetooth data. Apps installed on users device talks to apps installed on others device using Bluetooth and this captures nearby interaction and with location data, app agencies or government body can identify hotspot easily.

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Let us understand this with 4 Indian citizens, viz., citizen A, citizen B, citizen C, and citizen D. Suppose all of them have installed Aarogya Setu app distributed by Indian government. It is mandatory to make sure Bluetooth and GPS is enabled on all 4 devices for this feature to work seamlessly. Citizen C has come from an infected region and meets his friends citizen B and citizen D. After 4 days, citizen C gets symptoms and tested positive. Government syncs data and informs citizen B and citizen D that they are at risk and needs to undergo covid testing. Here citizen A has not come in contact with any of B, C, D, hence he remains safe.

What are data privacy concerns?

These apps collect users location data and social graph data and map it to personally identifiable information such as phone number which can violate individual privacy as government would come to know of all interactions that user had with other users and that is surveillance state where its subjects are monitored.

Privacy is hot topic and most countries respect individual privacy and restrict government encroachment through laws justiciable by courts. Hence handling of this data plays crucial role as government is best agency to handle any epidemic situation and it needs to be transparent with its subjects by making sure it follows below standard practices.

  • Store location and Bluetooth data locally on users devices
  • Take consent from app users before syncing this data to government servers
  • Be transparent in terms and conditions
  • Delete data after quarantine period from all servers
  • Do not collect any personally identifiable information like phone number, name, email, address etc.,
  • Publicise source code of app on GitHub and launch bug bounty for ethical hackers to break code

How secure is aarogya setu app?

Aarogya Setu is a digital service, primarily a mobile application, developed by the Government of India and is aimed at protecting the citizens during COVID-19. It is designed to augment the initiatives of the Government of India by informing the people of their potential risk of COVID-19 infection and the best practices to be followed to stay healthy, as well as providing them relevant and curated medical advisories, as per MoHFW and ICMR guidelines, pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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How contact tracing works on Aarogya Setu app?

The Aarogya Setu app on your phone detects other devices that have the Aarogya Setu app when they come within the Bluetooth proximity of your phone. When this happens, both the phones securely exchange a digital signature of this interaction, including time, proximity, location and duration. This data is stored on the device of all individuals. In the unfortunate event that any of the people that you came in contact with during the last 14 days, tests positive for COVID-19, the App calculates your risk of infection based on the number of your interactions and the proximity of your interaction and recommends suitable action. This action is displayed on your Home screen. Your updated risk of infection is analysed by Government of India, to facilitate suitable medical interventions, as and when required.

The 4 key ways in which Aarogya Setu protects the privacy of its users are :

a. Personal information you provide at registration is immediately anonymized and all subsequent transaction are related to a specific Device Identification Number (DiD) that is assigned to you by the Aarogya Setu server.

b. By default, all contact tracing and location information that is collected, is stored locally on your mobile device. This information is only uploaded to the Aarogya Setu server if you have tested positive for COVID-19. The location information is also recorded when you take the self-assessment and it is sent to the server along with your response to self-assessment.

c. All contact tracing and location information stored on the mobile device and not uploaded to the Aarogya Setu servers is permanently deleted from the phone on a rolling 30-day cycle. All your contact tracing and location information that might have been uploaded to the Aarogya Setu server is permanently deleted 45 days from the date of upload, if you have not tested positive for COVID-19 within that period of time. If you are infected, all contact tracing and location information pertaining to you is permanently deleted from the server 60 days after you are declared cured of

d. Further, the privacy policy explicitly limits the purposes for which this data will be used i.e. only for assisting you and generating insights to help the Government of India in its COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

With anonymization for PII (Personally Identifiable Information) and data handling kept in place, its safe to use Aarogya Setu App. With Government open sourcing Android code on Github, claims on these practices can be validated and further improvement can be made by hackers.


Here is an incident showcasing public involvement.3c4973e5-3392-4543-aef8-22d025093762-1486-0000009b9d1f066f_file-1

Future of Contract Tracing

Apple and Google have launched APIs for contact tracing on bluetooth technology to its limited beta developers where these giants are planning to not use location access for contact tracing and rely on bluetooth tech only. In coming days, to strengthen contract tracing we might not have to download any app and this contact tracing module would be part of Android and iOS itself which will make Apple and Google surveillance bosses than states.

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