Is Aarogya Setu Another ‘Experiment’ in Govt’s ‘Big Tech’ Plans?

Today’s criticism of Aarogya Setu is about who built the app and how, without accountability by private players.

4 min read

Aarogya Setu or Health Bridge is indeed the government's first major consumer application which was intended to act as a bridge leading to the health tech industry in India. Since day one of Aarogya Setu becoming mandatory, people have opposed this location tracking application. Fully aware of past fiascoes of Aadhaar data leaks and the mandatory push, people were alert in resisting this application in the absence of a data protection law. This opposition was vital in getting the Aarogya Setu application partially open-source, and resulted in bringing in the Aarogya Setu Data Sharing Protocol.


Was The Govt Only Interested In The ‘Branding’ Of Aarogya Setu?

While these were small wins, it conveyed to the government that citizens are not ready to be taken for a ride anymore. A small but important action was taken by residents of Noida who challenged and won against Noida Police for criminalising non-installation of Aarogya Setu. Several organisations like Internet Freedom Foundation and Software Freedom Law Centre have sent legal notices and approached courts against the government's decisions on Aarogya Setu. The current notices to Public Information Officers of NIC, NEGD and MeITY from the Central Information Commission is yet another victory in this direction.

The present day criticism of Aarogya Setu rests on who and how the app was built without any accountability by private players.

It is now on record with a report in The Quint that the government was least interested in safeguarding citizens data and was primarily driven by install metrics that would make Aarogya Setu beat Pokemon Go. The Government was interested in the branding of Aarogya Setu, the grand plans to use Big Data in governance to look cooler and smarter. But it seemed less interested in the problems of citizens who were facing issues with the app.

Govt’s ‘Lack Of Interest’ In Safeguarding Citizens From Exploitation

The Aarogya Data Sharing Setu protocol that has been brought by the government was also in partnership with another private think tank, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. While citizens were demanding a law to safeguard them from any harm that might arise because of Aarogya Setu, they were handed a data-sharing protocol that is neither a law nor policy.

Policy professionals have been very apprehensive about the protocol since day one, as it was mere intention with no actual physical safeguards in place.

The current revelations about how none of the procedures mentioned in the protocol were implemented, makes it clear as to how the government has little interest in safeguarding citizens from exploitation. Audit mechanisms, paperwork are important accountability practices employed to ensure government procedures are not bypassed by anyone.

By taking away these very basic procedures, it seems that the government’s leanings are more towards the private sector.

The push for digital products like Aarogya Setu by the Government of India is to convert India’s vast citizen population into consumers for an emerging data economy. Aarogya Setu too was an economic play by the private sector, and the priorities of both the government and private sector were clear from the start. The people associated with the app always stated their intentions to use Aarogya Setu to promote India’s National Health Stack or National Digital Health Blueprint.


Is Govt ‘Hand-In-Glove’ With Private Sector?

The mandatory push for Aarogya Setu raised doubts about the State’s interest in tracking real-time surveillance of locations of dissenters and opposition. While there is no evidence of this actually happening, the lack of purpose, the limitations and data protection law allows the emergence of a Big Government, and they were right to be afraid. With no paper or digital trail on who has access to data from Aarogya Setu, it is near impossible to know whether a particular State has shared the data with its Police Department instead of Health.

When it comes to the emerging data economy, surveillance and capitalism go hand-in-hand. One can’t only be critical of surveillance or capitalism anymore in silos, since both have inter-connected roles.

With the increased digitisation of society and no laws safeguarding citizens, the government and private sector are both policing and making profits with our data. Surveillance is no more a government activity, and profits are not merely generated by the private sector. The private sector can do better surveillance and the government can make larger profits by forcing mandatory laws to install apps. Often these arrangements are informal, and paper trails are non-existent, or the information is never shared easily.


Aarogya Setu: Just Another Experiment In Govt’s ‘Big Tech’ Plans?

These partnerships are now increasing in the name of public digital infrastructures/goods like Aarogya Setu or National Health Stack. Often these partnerships, like in the case of Aarogya Setu, ignore established due process of governance to favour the private sector. In the case of Aarogya Setu, no one knows if these volunteer developers have signed any contracts, just like in the case of Aadhaar.

These volunteers have claimed all the credit for building an app – the credibility of which nobody can attest to. But when it comes to questioning government practices in handling the data, the app developers are nowhere to be seen, even when they are informed beforehand about the challenges that arise out of creating these infrastructures.

Aarogya Setu was just another experiment in Big Tech plans for the data economy in India. These plans, including the recent push to make the National Health ID or Aadhaar mandatory – if and when a vaccine arrives – is a tactic Big Government and Big Tech have mastered.

‘Unless you give us your data and become a consumer to create a health data industry, you will find it hard to get a vaccine’ – seems to be the message. Whether we accept it or not, citizens are increasingly being reduced to consumers, and citizens must push for more safeguards and accountability procedures to shield themselves from onslaught by Silicon Valley.

(Srinivas Kodali is an independent researcher working on data, governance and the internet. He tweets @digitaldutta. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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