In the wake of the rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad, the Kavalan SOS app of the Tamil Nadu Police has seen a huge jump in downloads. An intensive campaign conducted by the police across the State has also contributed to the spike.
The app is being promoted by the police especially amongst women and children. Anyone who feels vulnerable or threatened can press an alert button for police personnel to reach them at the earliest, they claim.
As on date, the number of downloads has touched 9.5 lakh. Post the Hyderabad incident and a promotional burst, an average of 10,000 people are reportedly downloading the app every day.
And, after filtering the test alerts, the State police control attends to 150-200 complaints from the alerts triggered by the Kavalan SOS app.
Some people have expressed apprehensions over the need to give the app access to personal details on the phone, and have even complained of difficulties in downloading the app/ accessing services. Mobile numbers of close relatives or friends and email IDs are collected while registering.
A.S. Fathima Muzaffer, a social worker, said, “Allowing access to phone calls and device location is not an issue for me. But recording audio, accessing storage, media files and accessing contacts — that seems to be intruding into the privacy of an individual.” Without allowing such access, it will not be possible to use the app at all, she added.
A technologist, who is closely associated with the back-end of the app, said this does pose a risk to privacy of the user and claimed that the data of the app is maintained by a private party.
“The registered person provides an alternative mobile number, location access, and address details. Hence, there is no need to ask for access to media files. If the download reaches 15 lakh to 20 lakh, it will become huge data and can be mined for various purposes. The app should be designed in such a way that the data is secure and there is no need to provide access to media or contact files,” he said.
Since the collection of information is for a specific purpose by a law enforcement agency, it would be exempt from privacy laws. “The department should have adequate measures in place to keep the information secure. Police department should have a data protection policy,” said Na.Vijayashankar, an expert in cyber law.
Chennai City Police Commissioner A.K. Viswanathan said contact details of relatives or close friends as emergency numbers are optional and these are taken so that police personnel can alert them.
“Moreover, all details collected will be stored in the secure server of the police department, which is handled by Technical Services. These details are collected only for the purpose of providing safety to citizens. The information is collected only for the purpose of reaching out or securing the person in distress.”
A senior police officer of Technical Services of Tamil Nadu Police clarified that no third party can access the information and there was no chance of misuse. “After collecting the details, we do not read any data on anybody’s mobile phone. Moreover, we are not collecting any background information,” he said.
He added that any technical glitches while downloading would be attended to duly and the application would be updated after receiving feedback from users.
Another officer said that in order to simplify the registration process, the app had been modified to support the latest Android version. The gathering of alternative numbers, email and work location had been done away with after users flagged privacy issues, he added.
Once the person in distress triggers an alert, staff in the control room which is manned by a private firm receives a message and pass it on to police officers. The police locate the nearest patrol vehicle, police officer or police station to reach out to the victim.
The call centre staff also alert close relatives or family members if numbers are available.
During emergency, pressing the SOS button on the home page will automatically send the current location of the person in trouble along with a video to the Kavalan team.
Within a minute, the team will contact the person. Simultaneously, the location will also be sent to pre-registered emergency contacts as SMS alerts.
Shahnawaz Khan, Director of AMTEX, which handles the software and call centre support for the app, said, “We cannot go beyond a limit while invoking privacy. The details we ask for are absolutely for people’s own safety. All these details are stored in a very secure server. People are sharing everything on Facebook and Instagram these days. When it comes to safety, we need to be a little more cooperative.”