Compulsory phone app raises fears of India's flight towards 'super surveillance state'

By Murali Krishnan in New Delhi - RFI
MAY 8, 2020 LISTEN

The coronavirus pandemic will change many aspects to the way in which India is run, with analysts predicting both an increase in state power and the isolation of Muslims.

In early April, the Indian government launched a contact tracing app that processes users' travel history, symptoms and location data to calculate their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Called Aarogya Setu, which means "bridge to health", the app has been downloaded by more than 90 million Indians who have uploaded their personal health information and granted authorities access to their locations.

“The government now says the app is now mandatory for all employees, public or private," said parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor of the Congress party. "On what basis it could issue such an instruction to non-government employees is far from clear.”  

Not having the app is a punishable offence and people have already been fined 1,000 Indian rupees (12 euros).

“All those without the app on their smartphones can be booked. It is up to the judicial magistrate then to decide if the person should be tried, fined or let off with a warning,” said Akhilesh Kumar, a police officer from Noida, a New Delhi suburb.

But lawyers and free speech activists argue the app does not have adequate data protections and is open to exploitation by the government, which could use it to trace people's movements.

In a tweet, the French “ethical hacker” Robert Baptiste, who goes by the pseudonym Elliot Alderson, warned the app is unsafe – revealing he was able to break through its security to learn that several people in the prime minister's office and the army headquarters had fallen ill.

“The biggest casualty of this concentration of power is human rights," said SY Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner. "Overnight citizens are converted into 'subjects' and are compelled to surrender their rights in the name of larger public good.”  

Under normal circumstances, such policy measures would have been subjected to scrutiny by the legislature and judiciary, but the coronavirus outbreak has overridden the usual checks and balances.

As Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy wrote recently: “Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the surveillance state, now we are panic-running into a super surveillance state.”

As India steps up its use of surveillance drones and facial recognition, the government's health care app has now added to Big Brother's world.

An excuse for hate speech

The coronavirus contagion has increasingly been used to fuel anti-Islam sentiments in India, with the Muslim community shunned and abused after the missionary organisation Tablighi Jamaat was linked to hundreds of cases of Covid-19.

“This stigmatisation will continue and will probably take a more vicious turn in the coming months and years," said Navaid Hamid, the president of the All India Muslim Majlis. "After all, it is the project of the ruling party to make Muslims second-class citizens.”

Since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu-Muslim tensions have steadily escalated, leading to beef bans and the lynching of Muslims.

“We have already got a glimpse of the hate campaigns against the community last month," said Zafarul Islam Kahn, chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission. "This project to put us in place will take on a sharper edge.”

New rules for businesses

Immeasurable damage has been done to India's tourism, travel and the hospitality industries by a virus that, by all estimates, could become a seasonal event. Those sectors are now focused on a new wave of security measures. 

“Moving forward, technology will play a significant role in ensuring one goes through a machine that disinfects you before you enter hotels and offices," said Farhat Jamal a former hotelier. "Tech interventions will create minimum physical touch points in hotels.”  

Hotel chains have already begun revamping their existing service protocols and standards for guests. One hotel chain has embarked on an Indian project dubbed "We Care", which will entail new standard operating procedures for staff and guests. 

Equally, the legal sector will undergo a transformation, with judges, lawyers and litigants to adapt to a new normal of virtual courts.

Some high court judges in Delhi and Punjab and Haryana have completely dispensed with paper - digitising, scanning and e-filing documents. 

Lastly, the pandemic will profoundly change the way businesses are run, and fundamentally alter management practices. Industry leaders believe firms will increasingly allow - and even encourage - employees to work from home.

As one IT head, Lalit Kumar, put it: “We're seeing the coronavirus ushering in a new way of working in India and I think it's about time."

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