Glitches in CoWIN app slow down COVID-19 vaccination drive, fixed for now

India began its COVID-19 vaccination drive on 16 January and so far, over 631,000 vaccine doses have been administered according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). The doses delivered per day have seen a daily rise, with 165,714 people vaccinated on 16 Jan and around 177,368 people vaccinated on 19 Jan. It is being touted as the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive. But this drive could have been even faster, had it not been for the glitches that have been observed in the CoWIN app (COVID Vaccine Intelligence Network), which is one of the critical links in the COVID-19 vaccination drive. The government attributes these glitches to teething troubles.

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CoWIN app: What does it do?

The CoWIN app is used to register and acknowledge vaccination beneficiaries, to allocate vaccination centres and aids in monitoring recipients. It is also needed for health authorities to monitor the COVID-19 vaccines in real-time. It has been developed by the Ministry for Health and Family Welfare and uses the same platform on which the Pulse Polio and other immunisation programs in the country are based. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) and the National Informatics Centre are handling the backend tech infrastructure for the app.

The CoWIN app has many modules such as the “Administrator Module” for admins and technical supervisors responsible for managing vaccination sessions; a “Beneficiary Registration Module” for self and individual registration; a “Vaccination Module” to verify beneficiary details and updates on vaccination status; a “Beneficiary Acknowledgement and Status Updation Module” for SMS alerts, issuing electronic vaccination certificates and a “Report module” to create reports to analyse the status of the vaccination drive.

The CoWIN app is essentially a variant of the eVIN (Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network) app which was developed in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the MoHFW. The eVIN app was launched in August 2020 to let health workers and those handling the cold chain update information on vaccine stocks after every immunisation session, and allow health officials to monitor vaccine stocks, flows and storage temperatures.

CoWIN glitches galore

Since day one, there have been many reports about software shortcomings in the CoWIN app. This has been a cause for concern for a lot of governments across the country.

  • SMSes can’t be sent

The Maharashtra government had suspended the vaccination drive in the Mumbai till 18 January due to technical issues with the CoWIN app. A statement from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation acknowledged the glitches and that registrations had to be done offline, which were manually updated in the system later.

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“While the Central government had allowed offline registration today due to a technical problem, they have directed that all further entries be made through the app. In view of this, COVID-19 vaccinations have been postponed for two days in Mumbai on Sunday 17 January 2021 and Monday 18 January 2021,” said a BMC notice.

According to the BMC healthcare officer, Dr Mangala Gomare, the glitch prevented the authorities from sending SMSes to the healthcare workers through the CoWIN app and they had to be contacted through ‘war rooms’, which were set up last year to decentralise allocation of beds for COVID-19 patients. As a result, only 1923 or the planned 4000 healthcare workers could be vaccinated on day one.

In Chattisgarh as well, the glitches resulted in only 36 percent of the total number of beneficiaries being vaccinated. According to the Chattisgarh health minister, TS Singh Deo, the issue prevented beneficiaries from receiving text messages which would allocate vaccination centres to them. Similar issues were faced in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand as well.

  • CoWIN portal facing too much traffic, can’t handle load

The other issue that is causing concern is the slow loading of data at the vaccination centres. After a beneficiary enters a vaccination centre, their credentials must be verified, which requires access to data on the CoWIN app and cross-referencing it with Aadhaar. Jharkhand health minister, Banna Gupta, to The Economic Times said that slow loading speeds are not due to network issues, but because of increased load on the CoWIN portal.

  • Absentee beneficiaries not taken into account

Another issue that was brought up by a lot of state governments was not factoring-in absentee beneficiaries. There have been many reported instances of beneficiaries who registered for the vaccination, but never showed up on the said day. On-the-spot registration for alternate health workers in such a scenario wasn’t available, causing more delays.

The provision to allow an alternate beneficiary to register on the spot has now been added.

Government sources claim that the CoWIN glitches are minor software issues, which any app faces during initial rollout. Unfamiliarity with the app functionality and data-entry errors are also being cited as reasons for the slowdown.

Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre, said these kind of glitches are a common trend in government applications. “Several government services like the Public Grievance Portal, NSDL (the National Pension Scheme Portal) etc. suffer from a similar problem. However, we would not say that this is a general trend for new apps.”

According to officials monitoring the app in real-time, the app is optimised to handle up to 50 lakh beneficiaries per day, and can even work on 2G connections. But given the issues reported by various states, these claims don’t stand. There is no way for privacy experts to study the app, as the code isn’t open to the public.

“We checked OpenForge and GitHub, but could not locate the source code of the app. It is clearly not open source, and therefore, is not in compliance with Government's Policy on Open Source,” said Sugathan.

Fake CoWIN apps

Apart from the glitches that are causing a slowdown in the vaccination drive, there are a lot of fake CoWIN apps that are showing up on app stores. The official, government-approved CoWIN app hasn’t been released for the general public, and is available only for frontline healthcare workers and beneficiaries so far.

Advocate and cybersecurity expert, Prashant Mali has come across cases where fake CoWIN app makers are defrauding people. “These apps get launched with various names and are on the app stores until they are taken down. In many cases, once the victim is compromised via social engineering via the phone, an APK file named ‘Cowin’ is sent to them.”  Details such as Aadhaar card, driving license details, PAN number and bank passbook are requested on these fake apps, which are then used to commit fraud. “Once the victim falls for the scam, PIN number is also requested,” said Mali.

At the time of writing, there were two apps on the Google Play Store which have the name ‘Cowin’, but they are not related in any way to the government-approved CoWIN app.

The official CoWIN app will have the national symbol and you should cross-check that app on the MyGov.in website, or with your local doctors. “There is no official app yet. If anyone comes across fake apps, they should call on 1075 which is a 24x7 call centre for vaccination and CoWIN software queries,” said Mali.

Sugathan notes that fake CoWIN apps are definitely a cause for concern and recommends the utmost caution against them.

“We had seen this with Aarogya Setu as well. Those fake apps were able to make phone calls, record videos and calls. They can also be spyware in disguise,” said Sugathan.

So far, there have been no reports of the CoWIN glitches causing anything other than a slowdown in the COVID-19 vaccination process. The Maharashtra government resumed its vaccination drive from 19 Jan and authorities claim that the issues they had raised seem to be resolved for now. Even in Haryana, while minor issues were observed, vaccination carried on.

Until the source code of the CoWIN app is open to the public, it will be difficult to ascertain the causes behind these issues. As long as the vaccination drive doesn’t come to a grinding halt, it looks like these glitches will have to be dealt with as they come along.

 



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