Aarogya Setu’s journey from a quick fix for contact tracing to ‘the nation’s health app’
“It has become the health app for the nation,” Seema Khanna, director of the National Informatics Center (NIC), told indianexpress.com. Incidentally, the app no longer allows contact tracing via Bluetooth, a feature which, according to the Aarogya Setu team, can be “reintroduced…depending on the requirements of the health service”.
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in India, after securing 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 to perform contact tracing, and implementing contact tracing for a nation like India with over a billion people was going to be even more difficult.
MEITY-NIC had only a few weeks to design a solution from scratch, develop the solution, test it and deploy it to millions of users. “In response to the national crisis, a few enterprising and bright volunteers came together from industry and academia and facilitated the release of the initial framework and prototype within weeks. With the help of high-level 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, including representatives from government, industry and academia, have all participated in the project. The application is currently offered under the umbrella of MOHFW, NHA with NIC under Meity as the IT partner. Indeed, the application required funding to operate and continues to do so.
Prior to Aarogya Setu, contact tracing was done manually, mostly through human contact tracers. The team was able to leverage the mobile app to conduct large-scale contact tracing. In the absence of Aarogya Setu, the nation would have needed hundreds of thousands of human contact tracers, who would have 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, analyze the information and convert it into actionable intelligence. Team members said this process would have been “very laborious and inefficient” as they have to consider the time constraints of the situation.
It’s worth noting that the people behind the app were also tasked with other full-time responsibilities, and they were all multitasking under tight deadlines. “Meeting the nation’s expectations while battling personal Covid situations has put enormous physical and mental strain on the team,” said one.
In the early days, the app was under intense public scrutiny, questions were raised, and speculations were made regarding its 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.
They said end-to-end testing of the system was done both internally and by reputable academic institutions, security auditing firms and even ethical hackers, to check for the presence of security vulnerabilities. “The source code has also been made public.”
An engineer on request of anonymity told indianexpress.com: “..the security of the app and its data was something we kept as a top priority from day one. I can’t remember how many media queries, RTIs, complaint queries, helpdesk emails…etc we received on security. »
He said many people were spreading false information about Aarogya Setu’s safety 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 make that assurance a reality.
Aargoya Setu is no longer just a contact tracing app,” but has evolved into a national health platform for India. It has now been integrated into the ABDM ecosystem and will provide the features and functionality of the Personal Health Record (PHR) app and a host of other health-related features, some of which have already been introduced,” the team members added.
The team believes that it is still too early to completely cancel Covid, as in the last two months a resurgence has been observed: “…unless the pandemic is completely eradicated, we cannot lower the keep”.