By Mehab Qureshi
The Aarogya Setu app has come a long way. What was launched as a contact tracing app for the country has since been integrated with the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM), ABHA and with additional features such as health status sharing via code QR, Open API and Health Advisories. “It has been transformed into the nation’s health app,” said Seema Khanna, director of the National Informatics Center (NIC). Incidentally, the app no longer supports contact tracing via Bluetooth, a feature that Aarogya Setu’s team says can be “reintroduced…depending on the requirements of the Ministry of Health”.
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in India, it was understood that contact tracing was going to be a key factor in controlling the spread of the disease. But even developed countries were struggling with contact tracing, and implementing contact tracing for a country like India with over 1.3 billion people was bound to be even more challenging. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY)-NIC had only a few weeks to design a solution from the ground up, test it and deploy it to millions of users. “A few enterprising and bright volunteers from industry and academia stepped forward and facilitated the release of the initial framework and prototype within weeks. With the help of experts from government, private sector and academia, the prototype was further improved and transformed into a full-fledged application,” said one of the team members.
No less than 102 members participated in the project. The app is currently offered under the Department of Health and Family Welfare, the National Health Authority, with NIC under MeitY as the IT partner. Significantly, the app continues to need funding to operate.
Prior to the launch of Aarogya Setu, contact tracing was done manually, mostly through human contact tracers. In the absence of Aarogya Setu, the country would have needed hundreds of thousands of human contact tracers, who would have had to go door to door to trace and identify the contacts of a Covid-positive individual, analyze the information and convert it into actionable intelligence. . Team members said this process would have been “very laborious and inefficient”. Still, in the early days, the app was under intense public scrutiny, with questions raised, particularly around privacy and security. “All information stored on the user’s mobile device is protected by encryption. All data transmissions from the device to the server and vice versa are anonymized, encrypted and transmitted securely. Every request from the application to the server is authenticated. Backend data storage at rest is also encrypted,” the team members said. End-to-end testing of the system has been performed both internally and by reputable academic institutions, security auditing companies, and even ethical hackers, to verify the presence of security vulnerabilities. “The source code has also been made public,” they said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an engineer said: “Security issues regarding the app have been treated as a top priority from day one. I can’t remember the number of media queries, RTIs, complaint requests, helpdesk emails, etc. that we received on security. Many people were also spreading false information about Aarogya Setu’s security system on social media platforms. “We have maintained full transparency on all security matters. If a security issue has been validated, we have clarified it via our official Twitter account. Assuring people that the app was safe and secure was indeed a Herculean task and I think we did our best to get the message across.
Aarogya Setu has since “been transformed into a National Health Platform. It has been integrated into the ABDM ecosystem and will provide the features and functionality of the Personal Health Record (PHR) application and a host of other health-related features, some of which have already been introduced,” the members of the team.
While Aarogya Setu is no longer in contact tracing, the team believes it is too early to call off Covid-19, especially as there has been a resurgence in cases over the past two month. “Unless the pandemic is completely over, we cannot let our guard down,” they summarize.
The journey so far
* The government only had a few weeks to build, test and roll out the app to millions of users
* Prior to launch, contact tracing was done manually, mostly through human contact tracers
* The app has since been integrated into the ABDM ecosystem and several other programs
*Although it is no longer about contact tracing, the same can be reintroduced if necessary