The Aarogya Setu app for coronavirus contact tracing was developed in the most transparent manner with “public-private collaboration in record time” to combat the spread of the disease, the Centre said on Tuesday, after initially providing “evasive answers” to an RTI application related to the creation of the application.

In a statement, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the names of those associated with the smartphone application were already in the public domain. The ministry said that on all occasions, it had been clearly mentioned that Aarogya Setu was developed by the National Informatics Centre in collaboration with “the industry and academia”.

“The Aarogya Setu app was developed in a record time of around 21 days, to respond to the exigencies of the Pandemic with Lockdown restrictions only for the objective of building a Made in India Contact Tracing App with the best of Indian minds from Industry, Academia and Government, working round the clock to build a robust, scalable and secure app,” it added.

The Aarogya Setu app was launched by the Narendra Modi government in April with an aim to identify risk of catching and spreading of Covid-19. From the beginning, data security experts and hackers pointed out flaws and privacy-related issues within the app.

A controversy erupted on Tuesday after the government, in response to a Right to Information application, refused to reveal the details about the app, claiming it did not have any knowledge about who created it. Aarogya Setu’s website says the application was developed by the National Informatics Centre and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

But the National Informatics Centre in its RTI response said that the entire file related to the creation of the app was not maintained by it. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, on the other hand, transferred the query to the National e-Governance Division, which said: “The information sought is not related to [our division].”

Hours later, the Central Information Commission, the top appellate body under the Right to Information Act, issued showcause notices to the government for providing such “evasive answers” to the RTI application. The commission said it found it “extremely preposterous” that the government could not explain anything regarding who created the app.

In the two-page clarification tweeted from the official handle of the application, the Centre countered the RTI body’s notice. It said the app has been downloaded by more than 16.23 crore users and it has been strengthening India’s fight against Covid-19.

“It has helped identify bluetooth contacts of Covid-19 positive users and issued alerts for helping people to stay safe,” the statement said. “These bluetooth contacts have been advised for caution, quarantine or testing depending on the extent of the exposure to Covid-19 positive users.”

The app uses data used to calculate risk of infection, from age and address to travel history and – through the use of GPS and bluetooth – people that users have come into close contact with over the past 14 days. This information is then to an external server under the control of the government.

Citing the application’s efficacy, the government said that about 25% of those used the app to alert authorities later tested positive. “This is much higher compared to the overall positivity rate of 7 to 8 per cent,” it added. “Thus, the efficiency of testing has gone up with Aarogya Setu.”

Opposition cries foul over app’s usage

Politicians and citizens, meanwhile, questioned the legitimacy of the app and said the government’s “evasive” answers about it have refuelled concern that the pandemic is being used as a pretext to erode privacy and data security.

Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra mocked the Centre for “coercing billions of Indians” to use a “mystery app” that it had no idea who created.

“Mystery app that the Ministry has no idea who created, where files are, which inputs received or what audit measures taken to check misuse of personal data,” she tweeted. “And yet billions of Indians were coerced to use.”

Delhi Congress Vice President Shivani Chopra wondered what was the government hiding. “While Aarogya Setu’s website says it was developed by the National Informatics Centre & the IT ministry, both have denied knowledge of who created the app in response to a RTI query,” she tweeted. “Why are you hiding and denying?”

The Maharashtra Congress noted that from the beginning of the app’s launch, party leader Rahul Gandhi has been raising concerns about how some of its features breach personal privacy. “But arrogant ministers of the Modi government and selective section of media tried to cover-up this sophisticated surveillance system,” it tweeted.

Party leader Ruchira Chaturvedi too made similar observations. “When Rahul Gandhi ji had raised concerns over Aarogya Setu App and privacy & data security of people of India, he was mocked,” she said, sharing a tweet by Gandhi on May 2 wherein he called the app a “sophisticated surveillance system”. “Today, the Modi government says that it doesn’t even know who created the App & how it was created!”

Defence expert Ashok Sawin, meanwhile, wondered why the “Modi regime” forced Indians to install the app, and spent crores of money on advertising it when it had no idea who created it. Initially downloading Aarogya Setu was mandatory for public and private employees, as well as travellers, but the government later eased up the restrictions on its compulsory usage.