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Virus tracing app raises privacy concerns in India

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

In this Thursday, May 7, 2020 photo, an Indian man uses Aarogya Setu app on his mobile phone in New Delhi, India. As India enters an extended coronavirus lockdown, the government is fervently pursuing contact tracing to control infections. At the heart of the effort in the country of 1.3 billion people is a smartphone app that evaluates users infection risk based on location services such as Bluetooth and GPS. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

NEW DELHI – As India enters an extended coronavirus lockdown, the government is actively pursuing contact tracing to help control infections. At the heart of the effort in the country of 1.3 billion people is a government-run smartphone app that critics say endangers civil liberties in how it uses location services and centralizes data collection.

In April, India launched the Aarogya Setu app, which helps people identify whether they have been near someone who tested positive for the virus. Since then, the app has been downloaded more than 90 million times in a country with a smartphone user base of about 500 million. To popularize it, a campaign featuring Bollywood celebrities was launched.

But the monitoring technology, which uses GPS and Bluetooth, has prompted a raft of questions about privacy, security and potential data breaches — and whether it gives the government snooping powers.

“Aarogya Setu is a form of surveillance and inflicts tangible privacy injury,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

On Wednesday, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior minister, said the app was “robust” in terms of privacy protection and data security. The government also said no data or security breach had been identified with the app after a French security researcher exposed a flaw he said could allow virus carriers to be pinpointed.

Mobile tracing apps to help contain infections have already been developed in the U.S., China, Singapore, Australia and many European countries. Other countries are scrambling to deploy their own smartphone tools and tech giants Apple and Google have jointly devised a software solution designed to preserve user privacy and avoid the kind of amassing of user data on centralized servers done by India.

But India's approach is most alarming, in a country lacking a data privacy law, because sweeping orders have made the app mandatory for many.

The government requires the Aarogya Setu app be used by all workers, both private and public, and by members of the military. Installation of the app is also mandatory in regions declared as containment zones. Stranded Indians abroad who wish to be repatriated also need to install it on their mobile phones before entering the country.