MahaKavach is for patients only

Updated: Apr 19, 2020, 09:19 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

As another Coronavirus app readies to launch in Mumbai, its makers take questions on how it will help curb the infection spread and whether your data is safe with them

A medical staffer screens residents of Shastri Nagar in Dharavi last week during the national lockdown imposed in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. Pic/ Getty Images
A medical staffer screens residents of Shastri Nagar in Dharavi last week during the national lockdown imposed in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. Pic/ Getty Images

Eearlier this month, several Mumbaikars received an email asking them to download the Aarogya Setu app—meant to alert users if they have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive patient, and what measures they need to take in case that happens. The app, later promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his April 14 address, has been criticised by cyber security experts as being another surveillance tool in the hands of the government. Added to this mix now, is a state mandated app called the MahaKavach, which is likely to enter Mumbai this week.

Developed as a collaborative effort between the Maharashtra State Innovation Society (MSIS), National Health Authority, Government of India, Nashik District Innovation Council, Nashik Municipal Corporation, TCS Foundation's Digital Impact Square, the Kumabathon Foundation and other volunteers, the app was launched in Nashik 20 days ago, says Amit Kothawade, assistant manager, start-up and innovation, at MSIS. "We wanted to come up with a tech solution to curb the spread of Coronavirus." The pilot project was implemented in Nashik because the Nashik collector and municipal commission were working closely with the MSIS and the initial requirement came from them, he explains in a telephonic interview.

On how the MahaKavach works, Kothawade says the primary difference between it and the Aarogya Setu is that the MahaKavach can't be accessed by just about anyone. As an app whose primary focus is contact tracing and ensuring there's no breach in quarantine, the app link will only be provided to those who have either tested positive or have been advised quarantine by a health officer—while the app will be available on Android and iOS, users will need an authorisation code, which will come from the health officer.

Once downloaded and allowed access to your location history, the app will trace the geographical spots you have been to in the last 14–20 days, and check how many others you may have come in contact with and thus, possibly transmitted the virus to. Then, those users will be traced and monitored for symptoms for 14 days, while in quarantine. "Currently, the process is manual. The administration asks patient X what different places s/he has been to in the last few days, who they have met and then creates a chart out of it. But, the challenge is that not everyone remembers every point. It's human tendency to forget details after three days. The app will make the tracing process more efficient."

The other concern has been about people breaking quarantine protocols, endangering not just themselves, but also the community at large. The MahaKavach app aims to prevent this by creating a geofence when it is downloaded. "A base location will be mapped for the device and a digital fence of 150–250 metres will be created as per the health officer's advice. If the patient steps out of that radius, an alert will be sent to the health officer and the user will get a notification asking them to
return to the location." The dashboard will be monitored 24x7 by assigned officers.

The app is also equipped to deal with truants. If you delete the app, put your phone on flight mode or switch off your phone, the state will be alerted. Want to leave your phone at home and go for a stroll? The selfie attendance, unlike what's being implemented in other states, is randomised in Maharashtra, which means the user needs to be present near the phone at all times. The app will also be able to differentiate between fake and older images, and current ones.

With so much data at hand, how safe is the app in the hands of a government? Kothawade says that all the data is being stored on the government server and not on private server. And so, a breach is unlikely.

When logging in, the details you'll be required to enter include your phone number, age, name and whether you have been advised home or institutional quarantine.

What happens once you have been cured, or if after quarantine, you test negative? Kothawade says, once cleared by the health officer, it can be uninstalled. "There's no compulsion to continue to be on the platform." However, is it mandatory to be on the app if you have been advised? That, he says, depends on the policy in your district. The app was made mandatory in Nashik.

And once the pandemic passes, what happens to our data? That, too, depends on the state's data storage policy. As advised by the health department, it could be stored or deleted.

Not the only country in the world

Kothawade mentions that the team that worked on the MahaKavach was also in touch with Ramesh Raskar who led the team at MIT Media Lab which developed Private Kit: Safe Paths, an app which lets users see if they may have come in contact with someone carrying the Coronavirus—if that person has shared that information—without knowing who it might be. The encrypted location data is shared between phones in the network in such a way that it does not go through a central authority. Other countries across the world are also experimenting with technology with regard to contact-tracing apps. Denmark, for instance, is set to release an app which will use Bluetooth to detect contact with people within one to two metres. The company says authorities will only be able to access the data on an aggregated and pseudo-anonymised level, making tracing an individual impossible, as per a report in the BBC. The report added that in Italy, the contact-tracing app will be rolled out in some regions before releasing it nationwide.

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