South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

The Pandemic Is Enabling Big Brother

India’s new contact tracing app leads to concerns over privacy, security, and surveillance.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh state enter the New Delhi railway station after the government eased the nationwide lockdown on May 7.
Migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh state enter the New Delhi railway station after the government eased the nationwide lockdown on May 7.
Migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh state enter the New Delhi railway station after the government eased the nationwide lockdown on May 7. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. Here’s what we have today: Why India’s coronavirus contact tracing app is coming under criticism, a gas leak in Visakhapatnam kills more than dozen people, a look at the photographs from Kashmir that won a Pulitzer Prize this week.

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Criticism Grows Over India’s Contact Tracing App

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. Here’s what we have today: Why India’s coronavirus contact tracing app is coming under criticism, a gas leak in Visakhapatnam kills more than dozen people, a look at the photographs from Kashmir that won a Pulitzer Prize this week.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Criticism Grows Over India’s Contact Tracing App

In early April, India’s government launched a contact tracing app that processes users’ travel history, symptoms, and location data to calculate their risk of contracting the coronavirus. The app is called Aarogya Setu, which means “a bridge to health” in Hindi. “As more and more people use it, its effectiveness will increase,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on April 8. “I urge you all to download it.”

A month later, more than 90 million Indians have downloaded the app, uploaded their personal health information, and granted the government constant access to their locations.

The controversy. It hasn’t taken long for criticism to pour in. The French ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, who goes by Elliot Anderson on Twitter, said this week that he found security flaws in the app that allowed him to see that several people in the prime minister’s office and at the Indian Army headquarters were unwell. New Delhi was quick to respond, saying it fixed one of the issues raised by Baptiste and thanking him for his work.

A lot could still go wrong. Several problems remain. First, given how quickly the app was launched—and how quickly a loophole was publicly revealed—there could be more flaws. Other hackers may not be driven by ethical concerns. Second, more than half of India’s population doesn’t have access to smartphones, lessening the impact of the app and potentially exacerbating the divide between rich and poor.

Third, for those who do have smartphones, there doesn’t seem to be a choice: The government has made the app mandatory for public workers and has ordered companies to “ensure 100 percent coverage” among employees. In the city of Noida, near New Delhi, people caught without the app could be fined $13 or face six months in jail, as BuzzFeed reports. And fourth, the government could misuse data gleaned from the app, a concern that has been raised as India steps up its use of surveillance drones and facial recognition and expands the use of Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identification program.

As the Indian lawyer Gautam Bhatia has argued in Foreign Affairs, a data protection bill being considered in parliament falls far short of international standards, and India’s courts have largely allowed the state to have its way on surveillance requests. That track record doesn’t encourage trust in an invasive health care app, no matter how urgent the need.

A Big Brother world? These are desperate times, and tracing apps will play an important role. But this isn’t just about India. When countries finally emerge from their pandemic lockdowns, their societies “may also be much less free,” Faine Greenwood argues in FP, pointing out that other attempts to use technology during health crises—such as in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak—were largely ineffective and led to millions of privacy violations. Similarly, private sector contact tracing apps such as Alphabet’s Verily, which requires a Google account, create new means for companies to access individuals’ private information. Even if people have a choice, it’s a false one: We are never as desperate as when faced with a new, deadly, and untreatable virus.

Before we get to other stories, here’s our weekly look at the rising number of coronavirus cases and deaths across South Asia. As we’ve projected for several weeks, lockdowns have helped slow the spread of the pandemic, but they haven’t stopped it. With the region’s economies gradually reopening, cases will naturally rise.


What We’re Following

Deadly gas leak in India. More than a dozen people were killed and several hundred hospitalized after a massive gas leak from a chemical plant near Visakhapatnam, an Indian port city on the Bay of Bengal. The leak from the LG Polymers plant took place around 3 a.m. local time on Thursday, while most people were asleep. Doctors say patients have reported difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes. The gas has been identified as styrene, which is used to make fiberglass, rubber, and latex.

Bringing the diaspora back home. India is beginning flights to bring home more than 400,000 citizens stranded overseas while working or studying. A majority of the people who have signed up for the government-run flights are in Middle East hubs such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Doha, Qatar. Most will be flying into Kerala in southern India—a state with large numbers of people working abroad that has been lauded for its aggressive response to the pandemic. But there are fears that the returning citizens could carry the coronavirus.

In Pakistan, which plans to bring back 100,000 citizens living abroad, about 12 percent of those returning have tested positive for the virus.

India’s Gulf problem. The United Arab Emirates’ Princess Hend al-Qassimi is drawing attention to Islamophobia not only in India, but also among Indians in her country. “I miss the peaceful India,” she tweeted on May 4 in one of several rebukes of a rise in hate speech against Muslims. In one instance, she reminded an Indian expatriate in her country that racist remarks could lead to expulsion. As Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel write in one of the most-read articles in FP this week, Qassimi’s comments are among the reasons why India’s otherwise stellar relations with Gulf countries may be headed for a fraught period.

Afghanistan’s medical staff. Reuters reports that of the 925 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kabul, 346 are medical staffers—sparking alarm among the medical community in Afghanistan and leading to some clinic closures. Like many countries, Afghanistan is suffering from a shortage of personal protective equipment in hospitals. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the Taliban taking advantage of the situation and using the crisis to advance their own propaganda. Ashley Jackson wrote in FP this week that “aid donors and agencies would do well to openly acknowledge that the insurgency has an essential role to play and call on it to take concrete, specific actions to halt the virus’s spread and facilitate health work.”

Bangladesh press crackdown. Bangladeshi authorities have used a controversial digital security law to arrest 11 people for posting social media content critical of Dhaka’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The charges include “undermining the image” of the late leader Mujibur Rahman—the father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—and “spreading rumors and misinformation on Facebook.” Among those arrested was the writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who criticized the government over a shortage of masks and gloves for doctors.


Question of the Week

Preliminary data shows that more than 33 million Americans filed unemployment claims in the last seven weeks—a number that is expected to keep rising. That brings us to our question this week.

There are no official unemployment numbers in India since the pandemic began, but a respected private research agency recently estimated the country’s layoffs. How many Indians lost their jobs in April?

A) 22 million
B) 77 million
C) 122 million
D) 222 million

Scroll down for the answer. 


Odds and Ends

A masked Kashmiri protester jumps on an armored vehicle of Indian police as he throws stones at it during a protest in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on May 31, 2019.
A masked Kashmiri protester jumps on an armored vehicle of Indian police as he throws stones at it during a protest in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on May 31, 2019.

A masked Kashmiri protester jumps on an armored vehicle of Indian police as he throws stones at it during a protest in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on May 31, 2019. Dar Yasin/AP

In the picture above, a masked protester in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, jumps on top of an armored police vehicle as he throws stones at it in protest. The image, captured by photographer Dar Yasin in May 2019, is part of an Associated Press series awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography this week. The two other photographers awarded are Channi Anand and Mukhtar Khan.

Journalists in Kashmir have always had a difficult job. In 2019, they encountered sweeping curfews and internet shutdowns, making it harder to report stories and get their work out to the world. In the case of these award-winning photographs, Yasin, Anand, and Khan would head to Srinagar airport to convince travelers to carry drives containing the photographs to the AP office in New Delhi. There was no other way to get them out.

An Indian paramilitary soldier orders a Kashmiri to open his jacket before frisking him during curfew in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 8, 2019.
An Indian paramilitary soldier orders a Kashmiri to open his jacket before frisking him during curfew in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 8, 2019.

An Indian paramilitary soldier orders a Kashmiri to open his jacket before frisking him during curfew in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 8, 2019.Dar Yasin/AP

In this second image from the award-winning series, also taken by Yasin, a Kashmiri is ordered to open his jacket so he can be frisked. It was taken on Aug. 8, 2019, in Srinagar, just days after New Delhi announced it had revoked Kashmir’s special status and jailed its leading politicians. Most Kashmiris have lived under a strict curfew since then, with limited or no internet access and harsh curbs on mobile phones, landlines, and TV. Indian-administered Kashmir has become among the most militarized zones in the world as authorities seek to forestall protests and potential terrorist attacks.

[For more on Kashmir’s eventful last year, read a range of articles in FP by writers such as Michael Kugelman, Anchal Vohra, Idris Bhat, Rahul Pandita, Muddasir Ali, Dibyesh Anand, Sumit Ganguly, Kathryn Salam and me, and many others.]


And the Answer Is…

C) 122 million.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that there were 122 million job losses in April alone, with more added in May. While 91.3 million of these were small traders and laborers, salaried workers accounted for 17.8 million jobs lost. According to the private research agency, the country’s unemployment rate is now at 27.1 percent—up from 8.7 percent in March.


That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at newsletters@foreignpolicy.com. You can find older editions of South Asia Brief here. For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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