India is on the path to developing a sprawling surveillance state along the lines of China’s own surveillance model. The contact tracing techniques developed for the COVID-19 pandemic are now accelerating the process of deploying surveillance technologies in India.
The government of India has launched its own contact tracing app called Aarogya Setu. In a statement issued on April 6, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged local governments to promote the app, ensuring that people across India download it in large numbers. The statement proposed that the app could be used as an “e-pass” to facilitate the movement of people from one location to another.
In a tweet on April 8, Modi reiterated his message: “Aarogya Setu is an important step in our fight against COVID-19. By leveraging technology, it provides important information. As more and more people use it, it’s [sic] effectiveness will increase. I urge you all to download it.”
The Aarogya Setu app tracks the movement of the user through their smartphone and reports on the proximity to other users that have also downloaded the app. The app uses the permission to access a smartphone’s GPS and Bluetooth technology to generate status report about the phone’s user and its proximity to other users.
The analysis of the Aarogya Setu app published by the Paris-based cybersecurity consultancy Defensive Lab Agency highlights that, besides the user tracking function and contact tracing function, the app could be used to turn on built-in sensors such as the microphone. It also has the potential to access a smartphone’s data and contacts.
The Aarogya Setu app has been downloaded by over 10 million users from Android’s app store.
In addition, the government of India has held an introductory meeting with key industry leaders to explore a “citizen app technology platform.” This platform hopes to develop an “e-pass” model within the Aarogya Setu app, which would allow workers in the informal sector to move around. A similar model is being used in some parts of India.
In the healthcare system, India’s COVID-19 response has been integrated under the existing Integrated Disease Surveillance program (IDSP), which comes under the National Center for Disease Control. IDSP’s Health Information Platform has launched its own android app for healthcare workers.
The IDSP app is used to capture geolocation during an in-person visit by a healthcare worker. The healthcare workers have been asked to use the app while inspecting suspected or active cases of COVID-19. The IDSP app allows healthcare workers to input information such as a person’s age, gender, and date of birth, which can be tied to the geolocation data.
At Kochi airport in the state of Kerala, people returning from international travel are being asked to download an IBM-owned app called MaaS360, to track the location of individuals who are being told to self-quarantine for 14 days. The local police and health officials are making in-person visits to sites where they have noticed noncompliance with the quarantine order, according to media reports.
The state of Karnataka is using an app called “Quarantine Watch,” which requires the individual to take a “selfie” every hour between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., giving a real-time status report of the quarantining individual.
Other states are using a mix of geofencing and facial recognition technology to track the movement and status of individuals under quarantine. Those that are found to defy the quarantine are put under a state-mandated quarantine program.
It is evident that these contact tracing apps were rolled out without much oversight. Some experts believe that contact tracing and surveillance technology might be necessary to control the pandemic, despite privacy concerns. But the heavy reliance on smartphones to track an individual’s movements poses a serious challenge for contact tracing apps if the user were to abandon the device (even though the built-in sensor could be used to determine if the user has done so).
In an additional problem, experts have warned that such technology-driven contact tracing techniques can only be successful if they are adopted by millions of people across the country. The number of active smart phone users in India in 2019 was 373 million, in a country of 1.3 billion people, according to statista.com.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, India was developing an apparatus to track every person through the existing biometric identity program – Aadhar or UIDAI. In a two-part revelation published in Huffington Post India, a program called the National Social Registry (NSR) or Social Registry Information System was reportedly developing an integrated system to curate data about citizens into one database.
The government maintains that the program is meant for the poorest of the citizens, to optimize the benefits of the government’s welfare schemes. But the program is more than just a registry of citizen’s data.
The investigation by Huffington Post India also revealed that the Unique Identification Authority of India – which managed the Aadhar database – wants to amend the Aadhar rules to render “meaningless” the data privacy measures that were put in place to protect personal privacy. The database — or a group of databases — will update in real-time to capture data on job change, marital status, financial transactions, or relocations to another state.
The result would be an “all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database to track every aspect of the lives of each of India’s over 1.2 billion residents” said the investigation in Huffington Post India.
The report adds that the development “reveals how the Indian government is rapidly building surveillance infrastructure under the guise of poverty alleviation and how organizations like the World Bank are happy to offer advice to developing countries building intrusive systems that may not pass muster in places like Europe.”
The NSR program is under the mandate of India’s Ministry of Rural Development and its development was initiated in 2015.
India’s growing ability to track its citizens has the potential to be transformed into a rating system similar to China’s own social credit system, which rates the citizens based on their trustworthiness and behavior.
India has been developing a surveillance mechanism for years, as Huffington Post India’s investigation reveals. The COVID-19 crisis has given the government the chance to run an experiment on tracking its citizens and making them accustomed to the idea of state surveillance.
The COVID-19 crisis has presented an opportunity to test run India’s burgeoning digital state surveillance.
Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada.