On 20 March this year, the Government launched Singapore’s own contact-tracing app called TraceTogether to try and control the spread of the deadly COVID-19 in the country. The app uses Bluetooth signal between phones to detect other TraceTogether used in close proximity, which allows easy contact tracing when someone is tested positive for the virus.
“We will need to make full use of information technology, IT, so that when we discover COVID-19 cases, we can trace more efficiently where they have been, and whom they have been in contact with,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month in a national address.
However, he added that for this app to work, the Government will need everyone’s cooperation to install and use the app.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that in order for the app to be effective, at least three-quarter of the 5.6 million population must download it.
However, this app has only been downloaded by about 17 per cent of the Singaporean population since its launch in March.
One of the reasons for the low download rate is because of data privacy.
Zhu Yong Quan, a final-year student at the National University of Singapore, told South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he is reluctant to sign up for the app as he has concerns about his personal data being used by the Government for surveillance purposes.
Although the Government has explained the kind of data they would retrieve and how this will be used to solely contact those who may have potentially contracted the virus, the 25-year-old student still remain cautious.
“If I sign up for the app, I am afraid of how it could potentially reveal locations that I have visited, and what it might disclose about my movement,” he said.
Experts have revealed that the people of Singapore are wary towards the app because of a combination of factors, including if their data will be protected and what it will be used for.
“At the heart of this is a trust issue,” said Teo Yi-Ling, a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Centre of Excellence for National Security. She added that despite assurance from the authorities that the data would not be misused, people still can recall the past incidents of cyberattacks on government databases.
One such instances happened in 2018 when hackers got hold of about 1.5 million patients’ non-medical personal particulars. These patients have visited SingHealth’s specialist outpatient clinics and polyclinics and their details were illegally accessed and copied. The data taken include name, NRIC number, address, gender, race and date of birth. Information on the outpatient dispensed medicines of about 160,000 of these patients were also exfiltrated, and the authorities described this incident as the “most serious breach of personal data”.
“The concern about data security may be the thought of ‘[not wanting to] let the authorities have this data about me because I don’t know if it will be safe’,” Ms Teo said while speaking at a panel discussion on the use of data gathering tools by the Institute of Policy Studies last week.
She added that knowing the tracing app installed on one’s smartphone “hits closer to the bone in terms of feeling that your movement has been traced”, although the entire Republic is covered with surveillance cameras. According to a 2019 report by UK consumer comparison website Comparitech, Singapore takes the 11th spot for the most-surveilled city in the world.
There’s another app that was introduced called SafeEntry, where people who visit businesses have to get their NRIC scanned, with their details stored in the Government’s database. On the other hand, TraceTogether store data on a person’s person and would be accessed only when needed.
Based on this, Ms Teo said that it all comes down to transparency on how the Government clearly explains to the people on how their data would be used, as well as measures that would be in place to secure them.
Separately, associate professor at University College London, Jung Won Sonn, pointed out that in South Korea, the contact-tracing strategy required the Government to look into an individual’s bank transactions and transport data, but the process was “relatively transparent” despite not having any public consultation.
“The Koreans already saw what happened in China. People were quite understanding,” said Dr Jung, who was also on the panel.
Boring interface and battery-draining issue
Besides data privacy, experts have also highlighted other reasons that hinder people from downloading the app.
Lawrence Loh, an associate professor of business administration at NUS, said that the interface of the app is “unexciting”, adding that turning on the Bluetooth would drain the battery.
Temasek Holding CEO Ho Ching also condemned the app for draining the battery life of iPhones.
The app, she observed, requires users to “keep their phones on all the time, and to keep it upside down and in battery saving mode so that the iPhones won’t drain off dreadfully quickly”.
“One among us has just found out that he needed to leave his iPhone upside down in his pocket, so he is still at the start of using the app,” Mdm Ho, who is also the spouse of PM Lee, added.
She highlighted that based on a “quick check-in” with a chat group of ten users, “the young ones” had stopped using the app and became “irritated by all the msgs to turn the app on”.
To curb this, the authorities noted that they are now working with Apple and Google to improve the functionality of the app, and are considering to introduce wearable dongles for non-smartphone users.
Meanwhile, Ang Swee Hoon, an associate professor of business administration at NUS told SCMP that the low download rate for TraceTogether could be possibly due to a lack of marketing. She asserted that people have been more focused on other big announcements by the Government, and not so much on the app.
“News has been talking about all these other measures and we only have a finite attention span..that might have taen away from the tracing app,” Ms Ang said. As a solution, she said that the Government could make use of the advertisements on national broadsheets, which were initially utilised to advocate frequent handwashing during the early days of the outbreak.
On the other hand, Ms Teo stated that some people may not be sure on how to react to the Government taking their data. This is because when people offer information to corporations, there was a form of transaction being made.
“But in terms of the Government wanting to use my data, I am now sure what I get in return. Maybe that’s not clear yet, and maybe that’s something the Government has to assure people of,” she said.
But for some Singaporeans, the decision to download the app boils down to if more people use the app or if the virus situation gets really out of control.
“I know it’s a social responsibility to download the app, but that won’t work unless a significant proportion of the population are using it. I’m just not sure if it’s a trade-off I’m willing to take right now,” said Zhu, the NUS student.