This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Manav Sumara. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Inadequacies Of The Orwellian ‘Aarogya Setu’: Cloaked Means Of Mass Surveillance In Post-COVID India

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

What do you get when you cross a right-wing government in a state of economic crisis due to a pandemic and the endless need to control a nation? A mass surveillance program which feeds on public fear. This contact tracing app, called Aarogya Setu (which means ‘Health Bridge’), was released by the Indian Government on April 2 (with over 100 million downloads after 40 days of launch) as a means of tracking other users of the app that a person came into contact with and alerting them if any of the contacts tested positive for Covid-19.

‘The App Has Major Privacy Issues”

According to a Press Information Bureau release on April 2, the app is described as a “public-private partnership” and “ensuring privacy first”, while only a few individuals who were involved in the development process had stepped up to defend privacy breach accusations including former Google India executive Lalitesh Katragadda, MakeMyTrip founder Deep Kalra,  NITI Aayog’s Arnab Kumar and IIT Madras professor V. Kamakoti.

The government lacked an indispensable release of a full list of private developers who created the app alongside crucial information like partnership terms, future management and strategy inputs, etc. Such incongruities had already begun trust issues regarding the app and its accountability to the public.

A French security researcher, alias Elliot Alderson, had recently tried to access the app’s internal files, along with several other ethical hackers reporting potential data breaches due to the poor build quality of the app. Alderson found a strangely behaving activity upfront that could give attackers access to any internal app file, including the local database used by the app.

On May 4, they tried to push their analysis ahead and found the previous issue had been silently fixed. Upon analyzing more, he found another endpoint which allowed an attacker to know who is infected anywhere in India, in the area of his choice. “I can know if my neighbour is sick for example. Sounds like a privacy issue for me…”, they quoted.

India Lacks A Competent Data Protection Framework To Hold The Government Accountable

Alderson’s snooping was met with an official statement from the app team which openly lied about the app not letting anyone know infections larger than the radius of 10km while admitting changing location allowed a user to access data of different locations. This may be considered as reputational laundering, as different data types that wouldn’t usually allow the state to hold ethically are extracted with the use of the app. This can directly correlate to the Israeli cybersecurity firm that breached WhatsApp and monitored over 20 Indian journalists and human rights activists.

India lacks a competent data protection framework to hold the government accountable for any potential breach of the right to privacy. The app tracks users through their Bluetooth and GPS data under a digital anonymous identity. However, anonymous location data can reveal a lot of sensitive data about a particular person, including address, family/friends, work, and even things like their political leaning, for example, which can be extremely harmful in the wrong hands.

Also, the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the establishment of an ‘intensive surveillance mechanism within containment zones,’ requiring the local authority to cover 100 per cent of the population of containment zones. The transition from “voluntary” to “mandatory” is analogous to the Aadhaar surveillance project.

Ideally, policymakers should consider the effectiveness of contact tracing and its threats to privacy, equity and civil liberties before widely adopting it. There are about 450 million smartphone users in India which are around 34% of the total population of India (1.38 billion). Even with draconian measures that mandate 100% coverage of the app in the entire nation, there are glaring holes in any valid tracing of the transmission of the virus on that scale.

The government is continually struggling to offer any credible reason for the introduction of a contact tracing system as well as the requirement for its use. However, the terms of usage explicitly state that the government would not be responsible for inappropriate access to information, leaving the back door open for abuse.

There are striking similarities between the Aarogya Setu data collection in India and the US post 9/11 Terrorist Surveillance Program. Both ventures used public fright to validate their operation. Moreover, the software lacks a sunset clause that allows for its removal after it has been used for a defined amount of time in the face of which the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, recently announced that the service will continue for the next couple years.

In order to increase transparency and improve the security of the app via third-party developers, the government needs to make its code open-sourced. Considering the government’s refusal to either allow the app go open-sourced or set up a sunset clause for its fair termination, the project seems most likely to be a cloaked means of mass surveillance in a post-COVID India.

Created by Manav Sumara

Would you rather...
You must be to comment.

More from Manav Sumara

Similar Posts

By Arun Kr Jaiswal

By Sayantan Ghosh

By prince Kumar (Anna Rai)

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below