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India orders coronavirus tracing app for all workers

by Reuters
Saturday, 2 May 2020 16:01 GMT

India's coronavirus tracing app is raising concerns among privacy advocates

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By Sankalp Phartiyal

NEW DELHI, May 2 (Reuters) - India has ordered all public and private sector employees use a government-backed contact tracing app and maintain social distancing in offices as it begins easing some of its lockdown measures in districts less affected by the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government said on Friday India, with the world's second-largest population after China, would extend nationwide curbs for another two weeks from Monday, but allow "considerable relaxations" in lower-risk areas.

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India last month launched the Aarogya Setu (Health Bridge) app, a Bluetooth and GPS-based system that alerts users who may have come in contact with people who later test positive for COVID-19.

"Use of Aarogya Setu shall be made mandatory for all employees, both private and public," the Ministry of Home Affairs said late on Friday.

Company heads will be held responsible "to ensure 100% coverage" among employees.

Officials at the technology ministry and a lawyer who framed the privacy policy for Aarogya Setu told Reuters the app needed to be on at least 200 million phones for it to be effective in a population of 1.3 billion.

The app has been downloaded around 83 million times in total in a country with a smartphone user base of about 500 million, according to the technology ministry.

The app's compulsory use is raising concerns among privacy advocates, who say it is unclear how the data will be used and who stress that India lacks privacy laws to govern the app.

"Such a move should be backed by a dedicated law which provides strong data protection cover and is under the oversight of an independent body," said Udbhav Tiwari, Public Policy Advisor for internet browser company Mozilla.

New Delhi has said the app will not infringe on privacy as all data is collected anonymously.

The app can help authorities identify virus hotspots and better target health efforts, the tech ministry told Reuters in late April, adding information would be used "only for administering necessary medical interventions".

Critics also note that about 400 million of India's population do not possess smartphones and would not be covered.

The government on Friday said that re-opening offices would also have to ensure gaps between shifts and staggered lunch breaks to contain spread of the coronavirus that has infected 3.3 million worldwide and caused more than 230,000 deaths.

India has reported more than 37,000 cases and 1,218 deaths.

India is set to allow some factories to re-open and companies are scrambling to piece together their plans.

Smartphone maker Lava is likely to open its plants in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, next week, said co-founder S.N. Rai.

Lava is asking its workers to temporarily move to a neighbouring village, where it has leased dormitories for about 800 workers and is proving food and transport, said Rai.

"But even if we start production immediately, we will start with a maximum of 40% capacity," said Rai.

Other sectors such as the automobile industry are calling on the government to allow them to re-open.

The automotive sector is losing revenue of 23 billion rupees ($304 million) a day, three lobby groups said in a letter to the home ministry, urging the government to allow component makers and dealers to begin operations.

(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; Additional reporting by Aditi Shah; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Nick Macfie)