Osama Manzar, DEF Founder and Director spoke with Apar Gupta – Executive Director of Internet Freedom Foundation. He is a lawyer and has completed his graduation from Columbia School of Law and has been practicing for over a decade.
“This pandemic is not only a threat to human health but also to the constitutional framework. The representatives are ensuring that the democratic polity is enjoyed in its true nature for the welfare of the people so that we can achieve goals in terms of health, education, family etc. that comes along with an enabling environment.
According to the TRAI report there is huge under representation in rural India where there is only 1 connection per 4 people as compared to metro cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, where the ratio is 2:1. The access to digital technology is not percolating down to the masses.
How do rural people socially distance themselves when they do not have pakka houses, proper infrastructure, wealth, landed property? This projects a lot about different sections of Indian society, their state of being and the probability of rural people not having a smartphone, which otherwise could help them work remotely in a knowledge or a service-based platform.
Unfortunately, in a country like India, where everything is now digitized, all the banking services mostly operate online and through Aadhar, the rural people do not have access to these entitlements and the current lockdown just adds up to the situation.
Gladly, DEF is reaching the nooks and corners of the rural India, providing substantial service to the hemlocks of the country and serves as the last mile.
Establishment of public infrastructure is advisable in areas where the people are semi-literate and have devices for the first time so that the resource dependency is pulled together.
A panchayat has the potential to become a service provider and also an engaging community resource where people can get access to the internet. The access shouldn’t be in a restrictive fashion—it rather should enable people build strong bond with the internet.
The irony is that the approach of digital utilization is at the back seat. The bandwidth is poor, people don’t have access to the internet and yet the government is imposing people to download the Arogya Setu app for contact tracing and surveillance.
Arundhati Roy in Financial Times stated— “Pandemics are a wonderful opportunity to reset and correct whatever is going wrong.” The current situation requires correction of the fundamental rights from the government’s end along with citizen pushback.
Historian, Yuvan Nora Harari, links history to the present. His views on the pandemic is that the government is using app to roll out surveillance, which can change from over the skin to under the skin— i.e. people might end up having bearable devices installed on them for diagnosis.
There is a dire need for ‘Data Protection Law’. The smartphones collect the information through several apps, which directly goes to the MNCs pervasively and unaccountably. Arogya Setu app is one such example.
The app seems to be meant for extracting personal information, and not for public welfare. Therefore, it is not solving its main purpose of tracing, diagnosing, quarantining and curing as articulated by the WHO.
Such apps should be used with a basic level of trust, willingness and consideration—and also with a hope that it will solve purpose of saving people’s life. The current imposition of the app has brought a shift from cooperation and social fraternity to cohesion and force.
Arogya Setu is a mass surveillance app, totally made for data gather and if not installed puts the person at risk of getting criminally prosecuted. The citizens are a repository unto themselves and hold their individual anatomy, dignity and power, which they entrust to the government to achieve human welfare. It is weird in a democratic country like India that people may go behind bars if they do not install the app.
States like Telengana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Delhi are using police as a visible marker for the enforcement of a lockdown and unfortunately the disease has been observed as a social taboo with a mix of untouchability.
Building social taboos around victims only creates a negative impact and will result in people not reporting them in future. This in turn will lead to the rise of infection.
It is sad that Arogya Setu app is not transparent about its salient features and the people who are using it are under the threat of exposing personal data. The underlying legal mechanism, product architecture, service conditions are not exposed. Whether the data residing on the server is open to the third party for audit and scrutiny is still not known.
Ministry of Health doesn’t know anything about the app and this is resulting in suspicion. More than the lack of communication it is a problem of lack of transparency at the government’s end. It will be healthy if the app is open for criticism and accepts suggestions. It completely lacks demonstration of good faith.
International expert, Shawn McDonalds stated that—”Contact tracing doesn’t have a clear evidence as it works on the standalone priority. Since the app is primarily used as a diagnostic tool, it is important that the information reaches out to the health experts.”
It is advisable that we go to the basics of policy making and get periodic reviews, and design a technology in a measured manner, which will protect the fundamental rights and advances them than constructing trade- off between public health and privacy.
Penalising public heavily for not having the app installed is a draconian measure and it certainly reeks of an authoritarian government. A recent order by the Noida Police to book public under section 188 of IPC for not having COVID- tracker app on their smartphones will be considered as disobedience is shocking.
Such act compels everyone to think if the government is making use of the pandemic to deploy power/ authority on the citizens or is actually taking this as an opportunity to access and reset.
IFF is working on the fundamental rights of the internet services for all and ensures that people get quality access to the internet. We had predicted a downfall in the network speed, debunk fake news , promote civic literacy etc. along with a working paper on Arogya Setu, contact tracing, impacts on privacy, which includes 14 recommendations.
Also a signed letter is sent to the Home Ministry stating that this app shouldn’t be made mandatory for people of labour class, especially people who don’t own a smartphone. Hence, we are working on fundamental rights with a sense of social justice.