Centre apologises for their irresponsibility

News Desk: An “unconditional apology” was furnished on behalf of all the central public information officers (CPIOs) of Central government departments and ministries for “irresponsible submissions” before the Central Information Commission (CIC) regarding the availability of information relating to the Aarogya Setu app.

The CIC had earlier pulled up the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) for claiming not to have information on the origins of the Aarogya Setu app, despite it later claiming that all the information was in the public domain.

The contact tracing Aarogya Setu app was made mandatory for travel and several other activities as part of the government’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Urgent hearing sought as matter involved public interest

The petitioner in the case, RTI activist Saurav Dal had filed a petition on August 1 before the CIC after he did not receive a satisfactory reply from the ministry about the details of the app. He had, among other things, sought the entire file related to the creation of the Aarogya Setu app and details of the companies, people, and government departments involved in the process. Das had also asked for details of the law or legislation under which the app was created and was being handled.

The activist submitted to the CIC that while the CPIO of MeitY responded on August 7, saying the application had been forwarded to the CPIO of the National E-Governance Division (NeGD) of the ministry but did not answer his queries, the NeGD on October 2 responded saying it did not have any information relating to his queries. As such, Das wanted an urgent hearing, saying the matter was of “immense public interest” and required “immediate public scrutiny”.

The petitioner had also pointed out that any failure by public authorities to perform their duties as outlined in the Protocol, 2020 and its failure to inform the usage of people’s personal and user data will have a severe and irreversible detrimental effect on the right to privacy and the fundamental right to life and liberty.

CIC accepted matter related to right to privacy

The commission accepted that the matter related to right to privacy which is an essence of right to life and liberty deemed it fit to provide an opportunity of early hearing.

Central information commissioner Vanaja N. Sarna had also noted in the order that Das submitted it was “very surprising” that information was not provided by the NIC saying it “does not hold the information” relating to the app’s creation, despite it being the app’s developer.

The CIC’s interim order had also taken on record the demand of the complainant for recognising a senior level officer of MeitY as the deemed CPIO in this matter and how the complaint pointed out that various media reports had questioned the Aarogya Setu App and its making and handling.

‘MeitY had no clue about origin of app’

The CIC order further said the CPIO of the ministry too “could not gave a plausible explanation except that the creation of the same involves inputs from NITI Aayog” and that he “could not explain as to how it is possible that the App was created and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has no clue about its origin.”

The commission had then then directed the CPIO, NIC to explain how the website was created with the domain name gov.in, if they do not have any information about it. It also issued notices to the CPIOs of MeitY, Department of Electronics, NeGD and NIC to explain why penalty should not be imposed for prima facie obstruction of information and providing an evasive reply and listed the matter for November 24.

CPIO admitted submissions were “irresponsible”

On the day of the hearing, Shiloma Rao, general manager and CPIO, NeGD, tendered an unconditional apology on behalf of the CPIOs concerned for their “irresponsible submissions before the Commission”. Sarna, recorded in the order, that he “admitted that the subject matter is of prime importance and unnecessarily the RTI application was poorly handled by the officers by providing what appeared to be evasive replies”.

The officer, however, insisted that “actually there is nothing to hide and the creation of this app was a positive step and had actually helped immensely in controlling the pandemic.” He also submitted that all requisite documents had been made available on the portal itself in April this year.

The reply said over 10 public conferences were held in relation to the app and bug bounting programme was also launched so that if anybody found fault with the app they could be rewarded.

Officer designated to answer queries related to app

Blaming “lack of coordination among different CPIOs” for the lapse, he said a circular was issued by MeitY on November 11 to make a single CPIO – deputy director, E-GOV Division, MeitY D.K. Sagar – responsible for handling the RTIs related to the app.

The ministry reply also said that Aarogya Setu was built as a national app to strengthen the fight against COVID-19. “This app was built in a record time of less than three weeks without any cost to Government and was launched on 2nd April, 2020. Within 13 days of the launch of the App it had more than 50 million users which was a world record of the fastest time to reach 50 million users for any mobile app,” the reply said.

It was also submitted that the App has more than 164 million users which is more than the combined users of all other contact tracing apps in the world.

‘Data of users is completely safe’

On the issue of safety of data, the reply said “the app has been designed with a privacy first policy and the entire data of the users is completely safe. Most of the data remains on the mobile phone of the users and gets auto deleted after 30 days if the person concerned is not COVID-19 positive. Data of only those who are tested positive is pushed to the server.” Even such data is deleted after a maximum of 60 days from the date a person recovers.

Hearing the government reply, the Commission held that “since no malafide or intention to conceal information has been found in the CPIOs’ oral and written replies, the Commission is not inclined to impose any penalty on them.” It also dropped the show cause notice proceedings in the matter.