The Central Information Commission (CIC) has issued show-cause notices to the National e-Governance Division (NeGD), the National Informatics Centre (NIC), and the Department of Electronics as to why a penalty under the Right to Information Act should not be imposed on them for obstruction of information about the contentious contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu.
Filed by RTI activist Saurav Das, the application sought answers to some questions: Who built the Aarogya Setu app? Who proposed the need for a contact tracing app? What communications occurred between the makers of the app and the government? “I filed the RTI query in July 2020,” said Das. “About a month later, the NIC replied saying that they did not have any information about this.”
Under normal circumstances, RTI applicants would appeal for information and the process would be prolonged. “I applied for an urgent hearing because the app could pose a serious threat to the privacy of Indian citizens as it was collecting sensitive health data about millions of Indians without being upfront about how this data was going to be protected,” he said.
In response, Information Commissioner Vanaja N Sarna remarked it was “extremely preposterous” that none of the CPIOs (central public information officers) was able to explain anything about who created the app and where its files were. “The CPIO NIC also should explain that when in the website it is mentioned that the Aarogya Setu Platform is designed, developed and hosted by the National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, Government of India, how is it that they (officers) do not have any information about creation of the app”, the CIC ordered.
Das’ own investigations point to the possibility that Aarogya Setu has been created by as many as 33 private players, including a policy think tank and a successful travel aggregator app. “If indeed there are so many private parties involved, it becomes even more imperative that the app is transparent and accountable to Indian citizens,” he said. Many believe the evasiveness of the government in this high profile case shows, if nothing else, a lack of will to be transparent about matters pertaining to data privacy. However, a proper legal framework governing the use of this data, especially as Aarogya Setu is being touted as the most downloaded app in the world currently, is critical.
“Other countries with contact tracing apps like the UK have very strict data privacy laws,” said Das. “However, Aarogya Setu is simply governed by what the government calls a 'protocol' which is not the same thing.” Further, while Aarogya Setu was originally launched as a voluntary app, Das and other critics allege it has become practically mandatory in reality.
He cited a recent Karnataka High Court judgment, which stated that Aarogya Setu cannot be made mandatory in the absence of a law to govern its use.