Coronavirus pandemic

Apple-Google's contact tracing system not effective for Singapore: Vivian

Dr Balakrishnan said that not everyone can afford a smartphone, and not all smartphones would work well with contact tracing apps.
Dr Balakrishnan said that not everyone can afford a smartphone, and not all smartphones would work well with contact tracing apps.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Singapore will not be using a contact tracing system jointly developed by tech giants Apple and Google.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said: "We decided that it would be less effective in our local context."

The Apple-Google software, called Exposure Notifications System, uses wireless Bluetooth technology to trace the close contacts of Covid-19 patients, while giving users control over whether to share their data with health authorities.

"Several people have asked why we are not using the Exposure Notifications System created by Apple and Google for contact tracing. It is a good and innovative system designed by some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, in his post yesterday.

But "after careful consideration", the Government decided against using the system.

"There would be no way to identify how, when and whom the person was infected by or passed the infection to. The 'graph' would not be available to the contact tracers," Dr Balakrishnan wrote.

A Smart Nation and Digital Government Group spokesman said: "The design of Apple and Google's Exposure Notifications protocol deliberately obfuscates information from the public health authority."

A day earlier, former Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam had questioned the Government's multimillion-dollar plan to roll out a wearable device known as the TraceTogether Token instead of working with Apple and Google.

In his blog post, Mr Giam wrote: "The TraceTogether app should be re-programmed to adopt Apple and Google's Exposure Notifications System. 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."

Mr Giam, who is a member of the opposition Workers' Party, added: "The wearable device then only needs to be issued to the 9 per cent of residents who don't own a smartphone, saving taxpayers over $100 million."

Locally based electronics firm PCI has won a $6 million tender to supply the first 300,000 TraceTogether Token devices. This works out to $20 per token, which will be issued starting from later this month.

Rolling out the device to all 5.7 million residents here would potentially cost $100 million.

Developers of TraceTogether had said in April they would work with Apple and Google to allow "cross-border interoperability".

Dr Balakrishnan's post yesterday was the first time since then that any official comments have been made about the integration of Apple and Google's technology.

Dr Balakrishnan added that not everyone can afford a smartphone, and not all smartphones would work well with contact tracing apps.

"To extend effective protection to as many people as possible, we had to consider tokens that would be simpler, more effective, more convenient and cheaper than phones. These tokens would interoperate with the apps on the smartphones," the minister said.

"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 added that the protection from contact tracing has to be made available as soon as possible and to as many people as possible, to ensure no one is excluded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2020, with the headline 'Apple-Google's contact tracing system not effective for S'pore: Vivian'. Subscribe