India's contact tracing app Aarogya Setu comes under the scanner again — three departments fail to explain their role in its development

India's contact tracing app Aarogya Setu comes under the scanner again — three departments fail to explain their role in its development
India's contact tracing app, Aarogya SetuBI India
  • Three departments of the Indian government have been issued a show-cause notice to explain the development of India’s contact tracing app — Aarogya Setu.
  • The National Informatics Centre (NIC), the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), and the National e-Governance Division (NeGD) have been asked to appear before the bench on November 24 by the Central Information Commission (CIC).
  • The NIC, in particular, as the app’s developer needs to explain how Aarogya Setu was created.

India’s contact tracing app Aarogya Setu, which boasts of over 162 million downloads, is caught in the crosshairs of controversy again — this time over its origin story.

A petition was filed by Saurav Das with the Central Information Commission (CIC) when three bodies within the government refused to answer Right to Information (RTI) requests asking about the creation of Aarogya Setu.

“It is surprising that the National Informatics Centre (NIC) doesn’t have any information about Aarogya Setu since it is the app’s developer,” said the petition.
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The CIC, India’s transparency watchdog, has now served a show-cause notice to the three bodies — NIC, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), and the National e-Governance Division (NeGD) — to explain their role in the development of Aarogya Setu within the next two months.

NIC, in particular, needs to explain how the Aarogya Setu app was created. "None of the CPIOs were able to explain anything regarding who created the App, where are the files — and the same is extremely preposterous", said the CIC interim order.

Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) of the departments have also been asked to appear before the bench on November 24 to explain why they should not be penalised under Section 20 of the RTI Act for obstruction of information.
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A copy of any and all supporting documents that may be relevant to the hearing should be submitted five days prior to the hearing.

The government has issued a clarification stating, "Aarogya Setu was developed in a transparent manner in collaboration with industry and academia."


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Other troubling signs around Aarogya Setu
French security researcher Robert Baptiste, who goes by Elliot Alderson on Twitter, first claimed that the Aarogya Setu app showed security flaws back in May.

At the time, the government thanked him for his concern but dismissed the accusations. They asserted that tracking the location of users is a documented feature of the app, not a flaw.

As the reins around the app tightened, former Supreme Court judge Justice BN Srikrishna called the government’s move to make Aarogya Setu mandatory for all citizens ‘ utterly illegal.’

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Another analysis by the renowned MIT Technology Review gave Aargoya Setu only 2 out of 5 stars in its analysis of 25 contact tracing apps around the world. It highlighted that India is the only democracy that is making such an app mandatory.

The rating was later further chopped to just one star when the researchers discovered that the app was collecting more information than it needed to function.

It was only after the review that MietY released Aarogya Setu’s source code on GitHub and initiated a ‘ bug bounty program’ for anyone who could find an issue with the app.

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