India’s Co-Win app for Covid-19 vaccine must avoid privacy issues —

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India has another app to manage Covid-19 pandemic.

Co-Win is a mobile app and website developed by the Indian government to manage, deliver, and track the coronavirus vaccination drive in the country, whenever it begins. The app will allow users to register for the vaccine, choose time slots, and receive a QR code-based certificate after getting the jab. This would potentially help the government track beneficiaries for their response to the vaccine, especially since the Covid-19 vaccine contenders are all breaking new and uncharted ground.

The Co-Win platform would also enable vaccine administrators to sign up for the mass immunisation drive, which India is likely to undertake once it approves the emergency use of one of the first three vaccine contenders. The health ministry had announced that it would be redirecting some of its resources from the universal immunisation programme towards the Covid-19 inoculation process. The app would help enrol and deploy the 154,000 auxiliary nurse midwives for delivering the vaccine, according to the health ministry’s plan.

At the moment, however, the app or the website is not available to the general public. The western Indian state of Maharashtra has reportedly used the platform to register 16,000 administrators and 100,000 beneficiaries for the Covid-19 vaccine. India’s plan is to inoculate 30 million healthcare and frontline workers by August, after which it would begin the process for its senior citizens.

While an app would streamline the process, the Indian government would need to build trust around users’ data and privacy, a bone of contention with its earlier digital initiatives.

Addressing privacy concerns

Aarogya Setu, the Indian government’s contact tracing app for coronavirus, landed itself in the soup after experts found glaring privacy loopholes in its initial versions. For instance, the app’s early versions did not give the option to a user to delete their data. The source code of the app, downloaded by nearly 17 million Indians, also was not made public until a pushback from cybersecurity analysts.

The contact tracing app, which was meant to eventually become an umbrella application for use during the pandemic, was also to offer options like e-passes, and health consultations. This, in turn, raised concerns over what data the government would store and where, and whether it would share sensitive health data across government agencies. In the absence of a codified data privacy law, these issues became more contentious.

There was also talk about linking vaccine delivery to one’s Aadhaar, India’s unique identification number for residents. This argument also came from Nandan Nilekani, the techpreneur who helped India develop its unique identification programme. But the Aadhaar itself is a fault-prone mechanism, including recent reports of Aadhaar cards with fake names being used to access government schemes. At the moment, the government offers an option to potential vaccine beneficiaries to use any one of the 12 identification documents to register on Co-Win.

One reason why the government chose a separate Co-Win app for the vaccines could be that as per its updated policy, the Aarogya Setu app now allows the user to delete their data whenever they want. This would prove to be an administrative nightmare for a vaccine whose effects would need to be monitored over the long term.

Once the app is made available, the government would need to preemptively address data protection concerns, while also storing the data for a stipulated amount of time.

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