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 functionalities like sharing of health status through QR code, Open API, and health advisories. “It has been transformed into the health app of the nation,” said National Informatics Centre (NIC) Director Seema Khanna. Incidentally, the app no longer enables contact tracing via Bluetooth, a feature the Aarogya Setu team says can be “re-introduced… depending upon the health ministry’s requirements.”
In the early days 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 expected to be even tougher. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY)-NIC had only a few weeks to architect a solution from scratch, and test and roll it out for millions of users. “A few enterprising and brilliant volunteers from industry and academia came forward and facilitated the release of the initial framework and prototype in a matter of weeks. With the help of experts from the government, private sector and academia, the prototype was further augmented and turned into a full-fledged app,” one of the team members said.
As many as 102 members were a part of the project. The app is currently offered under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the National Health Authority, with NIC under MeitY as the IT partner. Significantly, the app continues to require funding to operate it.
Prior to Aarogya Setu’s launch, contact tracing was carried out manually, mostly through human contact tracers. In the absence of Aarogya Setu, the country would have needed lakhs of human contact tracers, who would have had to go from door to door to trace and identify the contacts of a Covid-positive individual, analyse the information and convert it into actionable intelligence. Members of the team said this process would have been “very laborious and ineffective”. Yet, in the initial days, the app was under intense public scrutiny, with questions being raised, especially regarding privacy and security. “All information stored on the user’s mobile device is protected using encryption. All the data transmission from the device to the server and back is anonymised, encrypted and transmitted securely. Every single request from the app to the server is authenticated. The backend data storage at rest is also encrypted,” members of the team said. End-to-end testing of the system was done both internally and through reputed academic institutions, security audit companies, and even ethical hackers, to check for the presence of security vulnerabilities. “The source code has also been made public,” they said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an engineer said, “security concerns regarding the app were treated as a top priority from day one. I can’t remember the number of media queries, RTIs, grievance queries, help desk emails, etc. which we received on security.” Many people were also spreading false information about Aarogya Setu’s security system on social media platforms. “We maintained complete transparency on all security matters. If any security concern was validated, then we clarified the same through our official Twitter handle. Assuring the people that the app was safe and secure was indeed a herculean task and I believe that we did our best in driving home the message.”
Aarogya Setu has since “been transformed into the National Health Platform. It has been integrated with the ABDM ecosystem and shall provide the features and functionalities of the Personal Health Record (PHR) application and a host of other health-related features, some of which have already been introduced,” members of the team added.
While Aarogya Setu is no longer into contact tracing, the team believes it is too early to write off Covid-19, especially as there has been a resurgence of cases in the past couple of months. “Unless the pandemic is completely over, we can’t let our guard down,” they sum up.
The journey so far
* The government had only a few weeks to build, test and roll out app for millions of users
* Prior to its launch, contact tracing was carried out manually, mostly through human contact tracers
* The app has since been integrated with the ABDM ecosystem and several other programmes
* Though it’s no longer into contact tracing, the same can be reintroduced if needed