After the outbreak of Covid-19, Singapore and other countries like Japan, China, South Korea, and India developed their own versions of the contact tracking app to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Basically, contact tracking works by tracking down the people an infected person has come into contact with and then taking action to break the transmission chain until we have a vaccine.
However, our own GovTech app, developed by GovTech in March, faced technical challenges, and only 25 percent of the population downloaded the app.
To encourage more people to participate in contact tracking, the Singapore government announced last Friday (June 5) that it is currently developing a portable contact tracking device to be launched later this month.
This move has led to a public outcry that Singaporeans describe as government attempts to introduce a monitoring tool for their citizens.
Is contact tracking a viable way to keep the virus at bay? We looked at how Singapore has implemented contact tracking so far and what challenges it has.
Traditional contact tracking is too tedious
When Singapore confirmed its first case of coronavirus infection in January, a group of contact tracers were deployed.
They worked two shifts, seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. while calling people to check if they were "close contacts" with Covid 19 patients.
The job of the contact tracer is to create an activity card – everything the patient has done and who they have been in contact with in the past two weeks.
The assignment must be detailed and taken into account every 24 hours, minute by minute, with no gaps in between.
Contact tracer at work in the Singapore Ministry of Health / Photo credit: Ministry of Health
If there are gaps, the contact tracer calls the patient to try to improve their memory. And if the patient is too sick, he will approach his closest relative instead.
This means that it largely depends on the memory of the infected person. To be honest, a lot of us would have trouble remembering the activities or places we visited alone in the past week.
Sometimes patients took a taxi – they no longer keep the receipt and only remember vague details like a "blue taxi". The contact tracers would then have to go through the CCTV material at the taxi rank to identify the taxi.
You must also act quickly and review what the patient said within 24 hours. You must also refer to other patients' activity cards to determine if the locations match or if there is overlap.
If the virus spreads too quickly, traditional contact tracking methods may not be able to keep up due to their tedious process of tracking contacts.
Not everyone has a smartphone
In March, the government launched a contact tracking app called TraceTogether, developed by GovTech.
It exchanges encrypted and anonymized Bluetooth signals with nearby phones that run the same app for up to 25 days. In this way, users can be informed if they are in longer physical proximity – within 2 meters for at least 30 minutes – to an infected person.
In order for contact tracking to work via the app, the person must first have a smartphone. Part of the population of Singapore has none, especially older and young children.
Users must then agree to download it and then enter their infection status if they test positive. This consent process is the biggest hurdle for people to participate.
Credit: Vulcan Post
In addition, users must activate Bluetooth and keep it constantly activated for the app to work.
Although GovTech assured users that it would not collect GPS location, WiFi, or cellular data, there were still concerns about data hacking and potential power usage by the government, coupled with complaints about quickly discharged batteries.
As a result, only about 1.5 million people in Singapore – or 25 percent of the population – downloaded the app.
The ideal proportion of users needed to ensure that the app works effectively is around 75 percent of the population.
There were also technical problems with the app. This didn't work well on Apple devices because the iOS operating system interrupted Bluetooth scanning when the app was running in the background.
In other words, the app must be open on the screen of an Apple iPhone in order to register a contact with another app user in the immediate vicinity.
Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge also pointed out that Bluetooth signals are routed through walls, so people behind screens and in different rooms could unnecessarily be identified as contact-based. This can potentially lead to a flood of false alarms.
Concerns about Apple and Google technology
To help developers develop more effective contact tracking apps, technology giants Apple and Google also launched new software last month.
The software, called the Exposure Notification Application Programming Interface (API), enables better privacy protection by encrypting all data exchanged via Bluetooth.
The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), which is driving the digital transformation of Singapore, has announced no plans to use the API.
Photo credit: The Financial Express
In fact, many countries have expressed doubts that Apple and Google will own the software and governments would have to use the technology on the terms of the companies.
Singapore could also share the same concerns until it reaches a consensus with technology companies if it chooses to use it.
This could also be the reason why countries have developed their own contact tracking apps so that they can fully own and control the data they collect.
SafeEntry is not inclusive enough
Aside from TraceTogether, the Singapore government uses a digital check-in tool called SafeEntry to make contact tracking easier.
The system collects visitors' personal information either via QR codes or barcode scans when they enter an event location such as supermarkets and workplaces.
The data can then be used to facilitate contact tracking if a person who has taken a site test has tested positive for Covid-19.
Data collected through SafeEntry is kept for 25 days, similar to TraceTogether's data retention policy, which the government claims is the retention period required to support the Department of Health's contact tracking efforts.
SafeEntry is mandatory at certain locations and has been used in more than 16,000 locations across the country. However, this is only a fraction of the public places in Singapore.
In addition, the controls are not strict enough in some places and it is easy for the control to fall through the cracks, especially when exposed to a rush of traffic.
They also have to rely on the user's responsibility when checking in and out of places carefully.
S & # 39; poreans are unwilling to wear a locator
To encourage more Singaporeans to participate in contact tracking due to the low attendance rate of the TraceTogether app, the government has suggested using a portable contact tracking device, as it does not depend on someone having a smartphone.
The wearable is under development and once it is ready it could be distributed to Singaporeans this month.
"If this portable device works, we can distribute it to everyone in Singapore," said Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, minister in charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and foreign minister, during a parliamentary session last Friday (June 5).
"I think this will be more inclusive and ensure that we are all protected," he added.
Photo credit: Reuters
This news caused a stir among citizens when they raised concerns about the potential use as intrusive and as a violation of their privacy.
An online petition has been set up to urge the public to refuse to use portable devices and has collected more than 32,000 signatures at the time of writing.
Under the heading "Singapore says no to portable devices for COVID-19 contact tracking", the online petition describes the implementation of such devices as "obvious violations of our rights to privacy, personal space and freedom of movement".
“All that prevents the Singapore government from becoming a surveillance state is the advent and commitment to make such a portable device mandatory. What comes next are laws that state that these devices should not always be turned off (or remain) – and thereby seal our fate as a police state, ”wrote Low, who started the petition on June 5.
In response to the concerns, Dr. Balakrishnan said the wearable would not track the user's GPS location and would only use Bluetooth signals to identify the user's proximity.
Apart from being intrusive, it would also be cumbersome to charge the portable device daily.
The question also arises: what if the battery life was exhausted during our absence and we had no way to recharge it?
Digital contact tracking not a silver ball
Digital contact tracking is obviously faster than traditional tracking, requires fewer resources, and does not rely on human memory.
However, the biggest hurdle is getting people to readily participate in the technology when concerns about data breaches and rights violations arise.
In addition, according to an Oxford University model, the government must persuade at least 60 percent of the population to opt for effective digital contact tracking. Although this number is lower than that of Dr. Balakrishnan with 75 percent, 60 percent are still a stretch.
To achieve such a high level of participation, Singaporeans need to trust that their data will be protected.
The effectiveness of digital contact tracking cannot be achieved without the commitment of the Singapore government.
"While many people argue that we are already using cell phones, Ez-Link cards and the like that are already tracking us, these companies that use our data have no legal responsibility for us," said Facebook user Wilson Wong in a post .
From a practical point of view, apps and portable devices that require Bluetooth do not have to affect users' battery life.
We must also keep in mind that the apps or portable apps, however effective they may be, cannot be a silver bullet for existing social distancing measures and must be part of a much broader effort to test and track contacts.
A growing sense of complacency from the flattened infection curve over the past few weeks suggests that people are less motivated to use it than it would have been a few months ago when the nation was infected with the virus.
Selected image source: AFP Photo / AP