As Singapore prepares to lift the circuit breaker against the coronavirus pandemic, and new contact-tracing apps are rolled out, there are fears that these apps will invade privacy and there are at least two petitions against their use.
With due respect to the petitioners, they are mistaken.
The contact-tracing app TraceTogether, and the new to-be-devised token, which will essentially be a hard copy of the app, should be widely adopted. To be sure, the app is not flawless and using it alone will not halt the outbreak. But it is part of the suite of tools that can be usefully deployed.
Concerns have been raised, rightly, about the need to protect the personal data collected during the pandemic. Some have argued that privacy concerns can be ignored or downplayed because the Covid-19 pandemic is an emergency and civil liberties such as privacy can be temporarily suspended in emergencies.
We do not know how long the pandemic will last, or how long data collection and tracking of individuals is needed to aid detection and stop virus transmission. But many experts have warned that Covid-19 will be a reality to live with for months, if not years. Given this uncertainty, we should plan for the long term even as we battle the virus in the immediate term by recognising privacy concerns.
On this count, TraceTogether scores well. For example, it is a much better respecter of privacy than the mandatory SafeEntry app that people use when they enter malls and office buildings.
Many people misunderstand what TraceTogether collects. Some people apparently want it to trace without collecting any personal data. That is impossible.
The point about contact-tracing is to be able to trace the person. To do so, some information about the person is needed, and such information is called, well, personal data. At the minimum, one needs the mobile phone number of the person. This is exactly what TraceTogether does. It collects the mobile number, which is the minimum personal information.
TraceTogether does not collect location data because this is not necessary or essential. So what if you were at a Covid-19 hot spot? You could be at one end of the supermarket and an infectious person at the other end.
This is the major problem with SafeEntry - it conveys the mistaken impression that it is the place that is somehow infectious. What is more important is whether you were close enough to possibly be infected by someone who is later identified as having the virus.
Here, TraceTogether is able to use the strength of the Bluetooth signal to measure the proximity to the infectious person, something that SafeEntry cannot.
And because the data collected is in the user's phone and not at a central server, there is no surveillance with TraceTogether.
It is these features - tracing without violating privacy - that got people all over the world excited about Singapore's approach.
It is "privacy by design" and meets the protocol called DP-3T (decentralised privacy preserving proximity tracing) to be followed for the best contact-tracing practice. This is the protocol, introduced in April, that "heavily inspired" the Apple/Google contact-tracing project.
TraceTogether contact-tracing meets the protocol and is compliant with the strict data privacy rules of the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.
TraceTogether has improved on some of the weaknesses of its first version. Version 1.0 could not run in the background on Apple's iPhones, meaning that if you used another app on the phone, it would be turned off. TraceTogether 2.0 is able to run in the background and this has resolved the problem of battery consumption.
The old version drained my iPhone's battery power from 66 per cent to 5 per cent during the hours that I slept from about midnight to 7am - when I wasn't even moving about. With the updated version, the battery power went from 88 per cent to 68 per cent over those same hours. This version also makes it easy for users to cooperate, with an upload function that was absent previously.
Furthermore, the amount of data collected has been reduced from several months to 25 days. After that, the data is erased.
Given the basic functions of TraceTogther and the improvements in its later version, what can be done to assure Singaporeans that the TraceTogether app can be trusted, so that it is more widely adopted?
Here are my suggestions.
First, an independent body should be invited to examine and verify the code that the programme collects only phone and not location data. Yes, the code is open source but at least one report suggests that it is not easy to confirm the claims. The Singapore Computer Society and the Internet Society (Singapore Chapter) have members who are well-regarded professionals that can examine and verify the code.
Second, replace SafeEntry with TraceTogether. That is, if I show TraceTogether to the checker at the entrance of a store, I should be able to walk in.
Third, remove the need for an identity card (NRIC) for registration. This was not needed in the first version of the app, but has been added in the updated version. It is not necessary.
The NRIC numbers collected are stored in a centralised database and is such an attractive honeypot for hackers. There is no need for the NRIC or any identifying number - one needs the contact number to call to find out who was holding the phone on a certain date; one need not care who the phone was registered to. It would be a rare individual who would lie about his identity when contacted and told he might have been infected with a potentially deadly virus.
Fourth, make cooperation voluntary. Currently, if there is data on your phone suggesting that you may have been near someone who was infected, you must cooperate with the Ministry of Health or face prosecution. For most people, it is quite intimidating to know that one's phone might lead to prosecution.
Fifth, government officials, starting with ministers, must be shown to be using the app. The Government should rope in celebrities and perhaps influencers to encourage the use of the app.
Sixth, we need some "success stories". So far, there has not been one public story that has demonstrated the efficacy of either TraceTogether or SafeEntry.
Singapore sees itself as a global city. In line with such places, we should respect privacy as it is an issue of global concern.
The use of the app as well as the token, when it is issued, should continue to be voluntary. Most people will cooperate.
To be sure, there will be some who refuse to cooperate, but that should not deter us from going ahead with a good app. Mandating its use is a bad idea that heightens fears of the use of the app, which then discourages adoption by those who otherwise would use it.
Even without a concerted campaign, 25 per cent of the population has installed TraceTogether. The measures listed above can nudge a significant proportion of others to do so. Singaporeans must be taught that the more we TraceTogether, the safer we'll all be.
• Ang Peng Hwa is a professor of media law and policy at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University, and is also a consultant on data protection at Goodwins Law Corporation.
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