Aarogya Setu started off as a contact tracing app for the country but now, with additional functionalities like sharing health status through QR code, Open API, health advisories, and testing lab details, “ it has transitioned into the health app for the nation,” National Informatics Centre (NIC) Director Seema Khanna told indianexpress.com. 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 department requirements.”
During the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in India, after getting crucial inputs from epidemiologists and experts, it was understood that contact tracing was going to be the key factor in controlling the spread of the disease. Even developed countries were struggling in carrying out contact tracing, and implementing contact tracing for a nation like India with over a billion people was going to be even tougher.
MEITY-NIC had only a few weeks to architect a solution from scratch, develop the solution, test it and roll it out to millions of users. “As a response to the national crisis, a few enterprising and brilliant volunteers came together from industry and academia and facilitated the release of the initial framework and prototype in a matter of weeks. With the help of senior experts from government, private sector and academia, the prototype was further augmented and turned into a full-fledged app,” Khanna said.
As many as 102 members including people from the government, industry and academia leadership were all part of the project. The app is currently being offered under the umbrella of MOHFW, NHA with NIC under Meity as the IT partner. Indeed, the app required funding to operate and continues to do so.
Prior to Aarogya Setu, contact tracing was being carried out manually, mostly through human contact tracers. The team was able to leverage the mobile app to carry out contact tracing on a mass scale. In the absence of Aarogya Setu, the nation would have needed lakhs of human contact tracers, who would need to go door-to-door in every nook and corner of the country to trace and identify the contacts of a Covid-19 positive individual, analyse the information and convert it into actionable intelligence. Members in the team said this process would have been “very laborious and ineffective” as they need to take into account the time constraints of the situation.
It needs to be noted that those behind the app were also tasked with other full-time responsibilities and all of them were multitasking under tight deadlines. “Delivering on the expectation of the nation while battling personal Covid situations put the team under tremendous physical and mental pressures,” one of them said.
In the initial days, the app was under intense public scrutiny, questions were raised, and speculations were being made related to its 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,” the members of the team said.
They 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.”
An engineer on the request of anonymity told indianexpress.com, “..the security of the app and its data was something which we kept 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.”
He said many people were spreading false information about Aarogya Setu’s security on social media platforms. “We maintained complete transparency on all security matters. If any security concern has been 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 this assurance.”
Aargoya Setu is no more only a contact tracing app, “ but has transformed into a National Health Platform for India. It has now been integrated with Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (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.
The team believes it is still too early to write off Covid completely, as during the past couple of months a resurgence has been observed: “….unless the pandemic is completely eradicated, we can’t let our guard down.”