The Government should re-programme the TraceTogether app to adopt Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications system, instead of issuing a wearable device to all 5.7 million residents, former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) and Workers’ Party (WP) politician Gerald Giam wrote in a blog post on Sunday (14 June).
Earlier on 5 June, the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan noted that the contact tracing app does not work equally well across different smartphone operating system, like iOS and Android.
To solve this, the Government would distribute TraceTogether token – a portable and wearable device – to everyone in Singapore, which will achieve the same objectives as the app but does not require a smartphone to work.
Following that, Mr Giam explained in a blog post why the Government should adopt Exposure Notifications system – which was jointly developed by Apple and Google – in the TraceTogether app, instead of issuing a wearable devices that cost about S$110 million to be rolled out nationwide.
“This will enable the app to run effectively on all smartphones, maximise adoption, protect privacy, enable cross-border interoperability and, most importantly, become a real weapon in our battle against COVID-19,” he wrote.
According to Mr Giam, Exposure Notifications uses a decentralized report processing protocol in which the user data is not stored in a central server and the matching of COVID-19 positive cases is solely done on users’ devices.
“Users can still opt to share their phone number and details of their symptoms with health authorities through the app, so that they can be contacted and receive advice on the next course of action to take,” Mr Giam added.
In comparison to the TraceTogether’s BlueTrace, it uses a centralised report processing protocol that will require the user – who tested positive for COVID-19 – to upload the entire contact log from their phones onto a central server managed by the Government.
TraceTogether’s current protocol prevents the app from running Bluetooth scanning in the background, but the Exposure Notifications protocol is implemented at the operating system level which allows for more efficient operation as a background process.
“The Exposure Notifications System provides both privacy protections and privileged operating system access to allow contact tracing apps to work on almost all smartphones, even when they are locked,” Mr Giam noted.
In fact, it also extends battery life and improves detection across iPhone and Android devices.
“By improving privacy protections and reducing the battery drain on phones, an enhanced TraceTogether app will become more attractive for Singapore residents to install on their phones, improving its current 25% adoption rate to a level closer to what is needed for effective contact tracing,” the WP’s member wrote.
About 22 countries have access to use the Exposure Notifications, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Poland, and several states in the United States. Thus, Mr Giam believes that “interoperability between contact tracing apps would certainly help”.
“Even Australia, which created its COVIDSafe app based on TraceTogether’s open source code, is now exploring a switch to Exposure Notifications,” he remarked.
In explaining the need for using a contact tracing app, he stated that it would be quicker and more convenient compared to manual contact tracing.
Mr Giam explained that manual contact tracing involves interviewing the patient and asking them to recall their movements for the past 14 days. The contact tracers will then track down the people who had close contact with the patient and instruct them to self-isolate or get tested.
“This is a laborious exercise which can take a few days. The delay could result in an infected person roaming the streets for several days, unknowingly transmitting the virus to others,” Mr Giam asserted.
Noting that 91 per cent of the population in Singapore uses smartphones, Mr Giam said that it would be easier and cheaper for the Government to roll out a “working contact tracing phone app”, adding that it is still “not too late to reverse course” by having the TraceTogether app re-programmed to adopt the Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications system.
“The wearable device then only needs to be issued to the 9% of residents who don’t own a smartphone, saving taxpayers over S$100 million,” he added.
The Exposure Notification system is less effective in our local context, Vivian Balakrishnan replies
In response to Mr Giam’s blog post, Mr Balakrishnan took to Facebook on Monday (15 June) saying that the Exposure Notification system is less effective in Singapore’s local context.
“Although a potential close contact would be notified by the system, there would be no way to identify how, when and whom the person was infected by or passed the infection to,” the Minister stated.
Moreover, the ‘graph’ would not be available to the contact tracers, he added.
Mr Balakrishnan went on to say that not everyone can afford a smartphone, and even so, many smartphone models cannot operate the BlueTrace protocol or the Exposure Notification protocol well.
This explains why issuing the TraceTogether token would be a more convenient move for the Government to extend effective protection to everyone.
“These tokens would interoperate with the apps on the smartphones. By increasing the overall pool of participants, everybody would be safer. Every user of the app or token would benefit by being informed as early as possible if we have been exposed,” he wrote.
Mr Balakrishnan also stressed that the country’s contact tracing effort will largely require human judgement, adding that the current contact tracing system enables the contact tracers to identify the people, venues, and activities that pose the risk of getting infected with the virus.
“Technology is only a supplement, not a replacement for the humans,” he remarked.
Citing his medical background, the Minister opined that patients should be informed of a diagnosis, implications, and options by a human being and not a machine.