Authorities must be able to trace people who have been in contact with others infected by the virus. Photo: AFP/Noah Seeelam

As the lockdown lifts and life starts to resemble normalcy, India has to prepare for Covid-19 cases to rise. This brings back the debate around surveillance, national security and citizens’ rights, and the need to balance targeted surveillance with the privacy of citizens.

Decision-makers must not feel the need to scramble for tools to tackle this unseen enemy. Tracing technology is potentially the magic bullet that can navigate the greatest threat to human life in this century. Technology can be a double-edged sword, as its biggest strength could also be its catastrophic flaw.

The ability to collect, synthesize and analyze vast amounts of information can provide valuable insights about the speed and nature of the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. However, it would also be naive to assume that this ability will not become a weapon for misuse, which may lead to drastic consequences for societies and democracies. 

In the past eight weeks, the Indian government demonstrated a commitment to allay citizens’ fears. By open-sourcing the app, they took a step to develop trust with the people.

In vulnerable times, the government has listened intently and accommodated the feedback of civil society and cybersecurity experts that embody the concerns of the common man. Open-sourcing the app will allow experts and researchers to verify the functionality of the app, giving it evolutionary powers and allowing a democratized approach. 

However, to secure public confidence, the government must enhance digital trust, that is the ability to comprehensively protect and secure sensitive data. A strong legal footing for the app is therefore critical to ensure citizens’ privacy, which is a fundamental right. 

Any application that collects personally identifiable information should be backed by law. An ordinance will not only legitimize the executive mandate to download the app based on certain predefined considerations, but will also establish procedural safeguards that will inspire public confidence to use the app.

Moreover, why the data is shared, whom it is shared with and for how long should be as explicitly stated as possible, to make the functioning transparent. Greater transparency will ensure that the adoption of the app is organic and not coercive and thereby will improve the app’s effectiveness.

Trust is the cornerstone to encouraging people to use the application, as that would help them understand its effectiveness. That will incentivize them to download them, which will be a step towards mass adoption. 

Now, more than ever, is a need to create an environment for a regulatory sandbox, a virtual space in which the software can be run securely, for policymakers and administrators. 

As we will have to live with the virus for at least two years or until a vaccine is invented, it will be imperative that the government develops an evolutionary ecosystem for developers.

Allowing an ecosystem of players to build, innovate and co-create agile policies in a closed environment which allows a safe place for risk taking hugely extends the scope of the app. It also allows live and time-bound testing of innovations under the direct oversight of regulators, which is needed to tackle the spread of the virus.

The Indian government should further its commitment to transparency by ensuring that data auditing is a priority. An independent auditor subject to parliamentary and judicial oversight must audit whether protocols for collection, processing, sharing and accessing the data during the pandemic and deletion of the data post the pandemic are complied with.

Going forward, real-time policy analysis and trusting the government will be critical to winning the war against Covid-19. The opening of communication channels between the government and the citizenry comes with immense benefits and will enhance India’s commitment to privacy. 

Therefore, the government must put in place protocols on how citizens’ data should be handled internally, which will make the app more robust, less prone to hacks and highly effective to help policymakers make the right decisions on the go.

As the larger debate for data protection and surveillance law continues, responsiveness of the government instills hope for greater cohesion within India’s technology community that drives the discourse on tech policy issues in India. It is now more important than ever for the government to target its approach to resolve health concerns, identify hotspots and limit the spread of the coronavirus, followed by its elimination.  

Ishani Tikku is a public-policy candidate at the University of Chicago. Kazim Rizvi is the founder of The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank based in New Delhi. 

Ishani Tikku is a student of public policy at the University of Chicago.