Aarogya Setu, an app that tracks individuals’ locations and activities to rate their exposure to Covid geographies and populations, and ranks them accordingly, has become a subject of controversy. The intent is to enable people to follow social distancing protocols and avoid hotspots. A better ranking enables them to have easy access to government services. Collecting individual data in times of a pandemic to enhance healthcare missions is understandable and a clutch of surveys, inspections and surveillance practices, sponsored by governments and voluntary agencies, are doing just that. Social distancing apps are aplenty on cyberspace. However, globally, there are no significant studies to suggest that social distancing apps and similar technologies have helped contain community spread of viruses, including Covid-19.

The app has predictably kicked up some dust over alleged violation of privacy. The experience with similar apps in Australia, Singapore and South Korea has not been encouraging. There was a public outcry over privacy concerns; the technology has been a non-starter in Germany where individual privacy rights are well-established. In India’s case, the data-sharing and knowledge-sharing protocol for the Aarogya Setu is porous according to experts and can be misused, considering that India’s data privacy laws are a work in progress. It is being installed by individuals only on government diktat. Significantly, there is no assurance from the government on whether the data collected during the crisis will be erased within a stipulated time in order to ensure the right to privacy of its citizens. Nor is there any concrete assurance from the Centre that the centralised data would not be used for other purposes. In the era of real-time big data analytics, such technologies hold immense potential for furthering the needs of the surveillance state.

Arogya Setu signals a greater malady — ‘technological solutionism’, a term popularised by writer Evgeny Morozov in his book, To Save Everything, Click Here . Morozov and others have argued that placing technology as a grand, self-evident and impartial solution to complex social problems can be counterproductive. Several examples, from computerised welfare mechanisms in the US to the surveillance practices in many monarchies and India’s own tryst with Aadhaar, tell us that blanket use of computable solutions compromises individual privacy, social harmony and inclusive growth. As for Arogya Setu, it is notable that those without a smartphone cannot possibly move freely or access government services or benefits. It is unfair that in a time of joblessness and despair, people should feel pressured to buy a smartphone for protecting their freedoms.