India’s CoWin vaccine booking system is a nightmare

But with an acute shortage of supply, the race to get a vaccine has turned into a scramble. There are racketeers such as the one Niranjan came across, charging people to book vaccination slots. There are also people from cities who are using these alerts to find slots in rural areas, taking away someone else’s chance of a job, who perhaps doesn’t have the means to make this booking to get inoculated.

For anyone between the ages of 18 and 45 to be able to book a slot, they first have to either go to the CoWin website or use the contact tracing app Aarogya Setu or the government services app Umang. There they need to enter their phone number and wait for a one-time password (or OTP) to be able to log in and check for available slots. If there is no activity, users are automatically logged out after 15 minutes. Since the registrations opened up, 53 million people have registered (as of May 14) of which 4.8 million have been vaccinated.

Between slots running out within seconds and minutes and a time-consuming registration process (many have complained of delayed OTPs), developers have stepped in to try and create an almost automatic booking process. Some developers have also created tools that help them stay logged in for longer than 15 minutes by automatically detecting the OTP.

In case of automated bookings, the code is typically used to enter the mobile number, validate the OTP, check for slots and then finally book one. These bots can also book up to four slots at once, which isn’t possible manually anymore. “I know of one guy who built a bot that auto-books a slot and there are many more doing the same,” says a young coder who runs a popular alert system, requesting anonymity. “There have also been instances of paid bots that charge large sums of money but it’s become really hush now fearing backlash from others.”

To tackle the growing bot problem, the Indian government introduced captchas right before a booking could be finalised to try and separate bots from humans. In response, people have simply built smarter bots. Some of these bots use captcha-solving services where developers pay $0.50 and break 1,000 captchas with an 80 per cent success rate. Others use their own machine learning models giving them a 90 per cent success rate. One such bot was able to book more than 15 slots over the weekend – sometimes within seconds of them opening up.

Anushka Jain, an associate counsel with the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organisation, says that while she understands that inoculating India’s 1.366 billion population is a huge logistical challenge, CoWin excludes a large number of Indians. “There are people who aren’t fluent in English, don’t know how these systems work, how OTP or captcha code works, and then there are people who don’t even have access to the internet,” Jain says. Add to that the bot problem and for many people booking a vaccine becomes impossible. “Even if someone knows how to book, they are unable to because the slots are snatched up as soon as they appear.”

The government says the CoWin portal is the “backbone” of the Covid vaccination drive. “The assertion that functionalities of CoWin are available to automate functions, ranging from notification to slot reservation is fallacious,” Ram Sewak Sharma, head of the CoWin platform recently wrote in an op-ed in the Indian Express. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is not the case.