With the development of a mobile app like TraceTogether, it is expected that Singaporeans would cooperate with the Government to aid in contact tracing amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, this app has only been downloaded by about 17 per cent of the Singaporean population since its launch in March. TraceTogether uses Bluetooth signal between phones to detect other TraceTogether uses in close proximity, suggesting a great voluntary effort in making this plan work.
Experts’ opinions on TraceTogether
The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, Chia Shi-Lu, stated that the app should be made mandatory for all residents to ease contact tracing efforts. The conventional way of contact tracing is deemed labour-intensive and time-consuming.
Considering how contact tracing is crucial to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Mr Chia noticed that the result of the app download was rather “disappointing”.
“Contact tracing is one of the most important pillars to manage any outbreak, and leveraging on technology can make things easier. But the voluntary uptakes have so far been disappointing.”
He had also suggested that the authorities can opt to make the download of the tracing app automatic in mobile devices.
“The authorities can look into making the download automatic in smartphones, where people can have an opt-out.”
Another idea given by an infectious disease specialist, Leong Hoe Nam, is that the authorities could also require people to show the app on their smartphones. This serves as a similar approach as the mandatory NRIC checks carried out at four popular wet markets in Singapore.
Mr Leong added that downloading the app should be seen as compulsory as donning a face mask when essential workers step out of their homes. Only widespread use will be able to ease the process of contact tracing if one comes in contact with an infected individual.
“At the least, all essential workers must download the app and see it as significant as wearing a mask when they step out of their homes.”
“If the app finds one such person who crossed paths with an infected person, the authorities can locate and quarantine him straight away to stop further transmission.”
The Tech Editor of the Straits Times, Irene Tham, thought that the app has not been able to “do what it was designed for”. And there’s only one reason that contributed to this, which is the citizens’ unwillingness to use the app.
Other than recognising that Singapore has thousands of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed nationwide, Ms Tham worries that there is still a lacking of accurate logs of all interaction. She pointed out that people do forget who they meet and they do not have the contact details of the strangers they speak to.
Citizens’ concerns for privacy issues
According to The New Paper, the low download rate may associate with privacy concerns because the app collects mobile numbers and stores the numbers centrally for contact tracing.
A 26-year-old market analyst, Jon Fong, is hesitant to download the app because he didn’t want his locations to be tracked.
“I am quite ambivalent about the app and have no desire to have my whereabouts tracked. Even in circuit breaker mode, people still want to have a certain level of freedom,” explained Mr Fong.
A housewife told the press that she felt obligated to download the app seeing how there was a rise in unlinked COVID-19 cases in the community. She also revealed that initially, she was reluctant to use that app due to privacy concerns.
What TraceTogether clarified
On TraceTogether’s website, they clarified that the app does not collect data about the users’ GPS location as well as their WiFi or mobile network.
“TraceTogether uses Bluetooth to approximate your distance to other phones running the same app. We do not collect data about your GPS location. Neither do we collect data about your WiFi or mobile network.”
The website had also stated that the data of the phones near the user will not reveal personal identities. Instead, a Temporary ID will be generated and can only be decrypted by the Ministry of Health (MOH).
“When you are close to another phone running TraceTogether, both phones use Bluetooth to exchange a Temporary ID. This Temporary ID is generated by encrypting the User ID with a private key held by the Ministry of Health (MOH). It can only be decrypted by MOH, and does not reveal your identity or the other person’s identity.”
Not only that, but any user who is infected with the coronavirus also has the option to let the MOH access the data on TraceTogether.
“Data about phones near you is stored only on your phone. If a user gets infected with COVID-19, he/she has the option to give MOH access to his/her TraceTogether data.”
Law and Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, understood that people have their rights to their privacy, however, they will put other people’s safety and health at risk if they can’t be actively contact-traced.
“There are individual rights of privacy, but if you don’t take care and cannot actively contact trace, you are putting other people at risk. If you weigh all of this, I think it comes down on the side of contact tracing, probably with the kind of app that resides in your phone,” said Mr Shanmugam.