Workers of a digital world unite to advance privacy, dignity and autonomy! #SaveOurPrivacy

This May Day, IFF and a diverse group of individuals and organizations write to the government to ensure that privacy, dignity and autonomy of workers is not compromised during the COVID-19 crisis.

01 May, 2020
7 min read


A diverse group of organizations and individuals have endorsed a representation to the Prime Minister's Office and various central government ministries on May Day opposing mandatory use of Aarogya Setu. This is specifically focussed for workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Aarogya Setu app which was initially touted as a voluntary measure has been made effectively been made mandatory for gig workers and government employees. This is despite failing to adhere to data protection standards and lacking algorithmic accountability. Today, an important joint representation signed by  37 organisations including labour unions, and 75  prominent individuals have endorsed a joint representation urging the government to issue an advisory clarifying that use of Aarogya Setu cannot be made mandatory and also recommends financial relief, protective equipment and healthcare coverage for gig workers during the COVID-19 related lockdown.

Schrödinger's App: Voluntary but also Mandatory!

On 02 April 2020, the government launched a contact tracing app (which now is building even an e-pass functionality) called Aarogya Setu which has been heavily criticized for failing to adhere to data protection principles of lawfulness, consent, purpose limitation, data minimization, transparency and accountability. IFF has previously published a working paper which explains the problems with Aarogya Setu in great detail and you can read about it here. This working paper is being updated to account for subsequent changes but its fundamental concerns and recommendations about the problematic nature of Aarogya Setu remain valid.  

While there were initial assurances that use of Aarogya Setu is voluntary, it was soon made compulsory for employees of Prasar Bharati and Central Armed Police Forces. However, even the army seems to have data security concerns about Aarogya Setu and it has instructed its officers to not use the app at work. Since this representation was drafted and circulated, the government has made Aarogya Setu mandatory for all central government employees and reports suggest that it may soon be pre-installed on all new smartphones.

In addition to government employees, certain private companies in the gig economy have also made Aarogya Setu mandatory for their workers. As lockdown restrictions are eased and business operations resume, other employers in the gig economy as well as the traditional economy may make use of the app compulsory for workers. Reports suggest that mandating use of Aarogya Setu may be a pre-emptive liability reduction measure by companies through draft guidelines for e-commerce which were privately circulated by the government mandate use of the app by all workers and hold the COO responsible for any violation.

Impact on Gig Workers

The Terms of Service of the Aarogya Setu app exempt the government from any liability for losses arising from misidentification of an individual's COVID-19 status. This means that there is no remedy available if the app misidentifies a person as at risk of having COVID-19. This kind of misidentification can have serious consequences and it could force workers to self-isolate and lose their income and freedom of movement based on an opaque algorithm. Further, in the long term, Aarogya Setu could become a tool of mass surveillance and sensitive health and location data of workers could be used by law enforcement agencies for punitive purposes.

In addition to this, timely, important research done by Tandem Research and CIS, thas demonstrated the need for government to provide financial relief, protective equipment and healthcare coverage to gig workers who are struggling to make ends meet during the lockdown and face higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to exposure to multiple customers everyday. In light of these concerns, we have sought to support the rights of gig workers, a number which grows each day with greater adoption of smartphones across the country.

Joint Representation to the Government  

Today, with the endorsement of  37 organisations and  75 individuals (till now), a joint representation will be sent at 7:00 PM to the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministries of Electronics & IT, Labour, Home Affairs and Transport. The representation urges the issuance of an advisory to clarify that Aarogya Setu cannot be made mandatory for workers in the gig economy as well as the traditional economy. To quote from it:

"Considering the damaging impact of the Aarogya Setu app and COVID-19 lockdown on the privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers, we urge your office to undertake the below mentioned measures in collaboration with the private sector.
(a) Take cognizance of privacy concerns associated with Aarogya Setu and issue an advisory clarifying that use of the app should not be made mandatory for workers in the gig economy and also the traditional economy.
(b) In addition to (a), to ensure greater safety, rely on certain methods of risk mitigation such as working with companies to provide daily temperature checks and personal protective equipment to all gig and platform workers who continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(c) Further, devise the right incentive structures both for companies and workers to ensure that gig and platform workers are able to sustain themselves during the lockdown and those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are not forced to work to ensure their livelihood. This includes provisions for medical insurance and financial relief to all gig and platform workers who have been unable to work during the lockdown or have witnessed a significant decrease in earnings due to low demand."

A copy of the representation can be found here (English | Hindi). As stated before, the representation has so far been endorsed by 37 organisations and 75 individuals.

It is open for public endorsement till 7:00 PM today and you can endorse it by sending an email to [email protected] with the line, "I endorse the Representation against Mandatory Use of Aarogya Setu to protect privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers during COVID-19 outbreak." Please mention your name and profession/organizational affiliation in the email. If you wish to endorse organisationally, we urge you to kindly send it from your organisation's official email account as far as possible.

List of existing signatories (Organisations and Individuals)

At present, the joint representation has been endorsed by a wide variety of organizations and individuals including trade unions, people's movements, digital rights organizations, public health experts, former civil servants and bureaucrats, activists, academics, technologists, journalists, lawyers etc. The list of endorsees will be updated at 7:00 PM today before sending it to the government. The list of all existing endorsees is provided below.

Organisation Name
ADF India
All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP)
Amnesty India
Asia Dalit Rights Forum
Association for Progressive Communications
Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR)
The Bachchao Project
Common Cause
Delhi Solidarity Group
Digital Empowerment Foundation
Forum Against Oppression of Women, Bombay
Foundation for Media Professionals
Free Software Community of India
Indian Delivery Lions
Indian Federation of App Transport Workers
Indian Journalists Union
Indian Social Action Forum
Indic Project
Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Mumbai
Jharkhand Nagrik Prayas
LABIA - A Queer Feminist LBT Collective
National Adivasi Alliance
National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF)
Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace & Democracy (India Chapter)
Point of View
Pothe Ebar Namo Sathi
Project Constitutionalism
Red Dot Foundation
Socialist Party of India
Swathanthra Malayalam Computing
Tandem Research
United Christian Forum

Individual Name Profession / Affiliation
Abha Bhaiya One Billion Rising
Ammu Abraham PUCL Maharashtra
Anand Patwardhan Film Maker
Ankur Sarin Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad
Anuradha Kapoor Feminist Activist
Ashish Ghosh Retired Teacher, University of Delhi
Asis Kumar Das Social Activist
Avani Chokshi Advocate
Basawa Prasad Kunale Advocate
Brijesh Kumar Former Secretary, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology
Brinda Adige Ananya Mahila Okkutta
Ch Narendra Senior Journalist
Chayanika Shah Queer Feminist Writer and Researcher
Dr Shakeel Physician
Dr. Mira Shiva Public Health Physician
Dr.Mohan Rao Former Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU
Dr.Tusharkanti Dey Community Health Adviser (Retired), All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health
Felix Padel Anthropologist and Author
Gautam Bhatia Advocate
Geeta Seshu Free Speech Collective
Gurbir Singh President, Mumbai Press Club
Gurshabad Grover Technology and Law Researcher
Harsh Kapoor South Asia Citizens Web
Indira Unninayar Advocate
Irfan Engineer Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
Janaki Srinivasan IIIT-Bangalore
Kalyani Menon Sen Feminist Learning Partnerships
KP Sasi Filmaker
Leo Saldanha Researcher
Madhu Bhaduri Retired IFS Officer
Manoj Mitta Journalist and President, FMP
Mary Mathai Former Chemist and Homemaker
Meena Gupta Retired Civil Servant
Nachiket Udupa Activist
Nadika N Writer & Researcher
Nidhi Agarwal Activist
Oishik Sircar Associate Professor, Jindal Global Law School
Padmini Ray Murray Design Beku
Pamela Philipose Journalist
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta Journalist and Filmaker
Prabha Nagaraja TARSHI
Pradeep Esteves Context India
Prajval Shastri Astrophysicist
R Ramanujam Professor, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai
Rajinder Chaudhary Former Professor, Department of Economics, M. D. University, Rohtak
Reetika Khera Associate Prof, IIM Ahmedabad
Revati Laul Journalist and Director, FMP
Ritu Dewan Director and Professor, Department of Economics, University of Mumbai
Rupsa Mallik CREA
Salma Francis Vision for Oasis Waves Society (VOWS)
Sandhya Gokhale Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai
Sanjay Kak Filmaker
Satyavir Singh Former Principal Commissioner, Customs and Central Excise
Sharanya Nayak Activist
Shivaji Sarkar National Union of Journalists
Soma Basu Journalist and Media Researcher
Srikanth L Cashless Consumer
Srinivas Kodali Free Software Movement of India
Srinivasan G Software Professional
Subhashis Banerjee Professor, Dept. Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi
Subodh Lal IPoS (Retd.) Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, GoI
Subodh S Gupta Public Health Professional
Subodh Sharma Professor, Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi
Sujata Patel Distinguished Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University
Sukla Sen Peace Activist
Sulakshana Nandi Public Health Researcher
Sundar Burra Retired IAS Officer
Sunila Singh Women's rights activist
Tara Murali Architect
Tarunima Prabhakar Project and Research Lead, Tattle Civic Technologies
Teesta Setalvad Citizens for Justice and Peace
Ujjwal Singh Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi
Vandana Mahajan Independent Feminist
Xavier Dias Editor, Khaan Kaneej Aur Adhikaar
Zafar Iqbal Former Civil Servant, Consultant and Advocate

We earnestly share the hope of all these signatories for a positive governmental response.  This May Day, it is crucial for the government to recognize that it is especially during public health emergencies that we must protect the privacy, autonomy and dignity of essential frontline workers who are keeping the country functioning, healthy and well fed.

We intend to follow this up with broader public advocacy efforts and are open to offers of collaboration – for instance making pamphlets or a 'jan parcha' on Aarogya Setu for workers in local vernacular. If you would like to volunteer, please do join the Internet Freedom Forum where such projects can be pitched and discussed with our staff and community organically.

Once again, endorsement is open till 7:00 PM by sending an email to [email protected]. Workers of the digital world unite!

Important Documents

  1. Joint Representation dated 01.05.2020 sent to PMO's Office (English | Hindi)
  2. Comparative Analysis of Aarogya Setu (link)
  3. Working Paper on Privacy Concerns on Technological Responses to COVID-19 in India (link)

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