Home / Technology / News /  India taps location surveillance apps to keep virus in check

NEW DELHI : The authorities are using location-tracking on smartphones to identify possible Covid-19 infections or to keep people indoors. Apps allowing citizens to track whether they have come in contact with infected people are quickly increasing on Google and Apple app stores.

Most of these apps use smartphone locations and tally them against government databases of infected personnel. They can alert users if they come in contact with anyone who has been infected and direct them to stay indoors.

An example of this is Corona Kavach, launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY). But while Corona Kavach seems to depend on users to voluntarily enter their information, Government think tank Niti Aayog, has reportedly been planning aa more advanced app — called COWIN-20. It also uses location and Bluetooth access in order to understand proximity between users, say reports.

Delhi-based Innefu Labs has created an app, called Unmaze, which can also inform the authorities if a quarantined user breaks isolation. Innefu Labs is the company that created the Delhi Police’s Automated Facial Recognition System, which was used to track down perpetrators during the recent riots.

The app is available to the authorities for free and at least three police departments plan to launch it under their own banners this week, said Tarun Wig, founder of Innefu Labs.

Apps are one way for companies and governments to use location data to handle the health crisis, but many have also used geo-location data to create informative maps about Covid-19 infections.

These maps are not just representative but can also be used by relief workers and authorities to plan their activities, said Nikhil Kumar, country head of Here Technologies.

For instance, a real-time feed of people going to testing centres could be used to track which centres are more inundated with patients and allocate more resources to them. Here Technologies has built a real-time map of Covid-19 infections around the world that is accessible to everyone.

The data for such maps is sourced from government sources. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has used the National Informatics Centre’s Bharat Maps platform to input data from hospitals through NDMA into the platform, Kumar said. It then asked Here Technologies to integrate this service into the company’s databases.

Of course, India is neither the first nor the only country to think of using location-based tracking to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, other countries including China, have used location-data in conjunction with Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) footage and credit card transaction records to track infected patients or prevent the disease from spreading. While the underlying technology has existed for a while now, Kumar said location technology has certain advantages during a pandemic scenario. Location data can help understand concentration of infections and plan deployment of health services accordingly.

Also, since the underlying technology already exists and organisations like NIC and NDMA already have them, it requires almost no new investments, and can be done quickly.

Such apps work best if they can track the location data continuously. This has raised questions about government surveillance.

In a blog post just about a week ago, the Electronics Frontier Foundation said that governments have done nothing to show that location surveillance will make a significant difference in containing the virus.

“Unless they can, there’s no justification for their intrusions on privacy and free speech, or the disparate impact these intrusions would have on vulnerable groups. Indeed, governments have not even been transparent about their plans and rationales," the foundation wrote.


Prasid Banerjee

An engineering dropout, Prasid Banerjee has reported on technology in India for various publications. He reports on technology through text and audio, focusing on its core aspects, like consumer impact, policy and the future.
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