The Future of TraceTogether

Written by: Young Wai Ming, Nicholas (20-E5)

Designed by: Kothandam Anusha (20-I1)

At the beginning of the year, I collected something from the nearby Community Centre with my name written on the item; it appeared to be a tiny cyan rectangular case no smaller than a box of mints. I did so because this Token would become the alternative of having to install the TraceTogether App on my phone.

With this, I could alternate between the two choices should I ever lose one of them (and possibly save some battery on my phone in the long run).

And now, this gadget seems to be indispensable in the new normal.

TraceTogether Programme

As part of government-led contact tracing efforts during the global pandemic, the TraceTogether Programme started last year. The open-source project, developed by the Ministry of Health and GovTech, uses Bluetooth signals from the TraceTogether App and TraceTogether Token to identify similar devices in the area.

This method helps to inform people if they have previously been in contact with a COVID-19 encounter, and at the same time aids in the contact tracing process. As of end February 2021, it was reported that 4.7 million people, or close to 90% of eligible residents have participated in the TraceTogether Programme.

Together with SafeEntry, the time it takes to identify and quarantine close contacts of COVID-19 patients has been cut down to under 1.5 days.

Thinking Ahead

For a stable system to be up and running — and within fleeting time — is of social imperative. To prevent the further spread of any disease whatsoever, communities have to gather as much information as possible and render it widely accessible for all.

Last month, Singapore came in overall first place in a study published by Eden Strategy Institute, which ranked the top 50 smart city governments around the world. Most notably, strong areas for Singapore included its innovation ecosystem and smart policies, among other strengths such as significant support programmes and financial incentives.

Fundamentally, TraceTogether was lauded for its contributions to effective digital governance. As a small country with a population under 6 million people, Singapore could stand a lot to gain if more of such tools are used to stabilise disease transmission rates during the pandemic. Under the OECD Digital Government Policy Framework, TraceTogether is already well user- and data-driven. The next step for TraceTogether would be to improve on its proactiveness, which by definition from the framework, is when the system anticipates people’s needs and responds to them rapidly, avoiding the need for cumbersome data and service delivery processes.

Currently, this has been happening to varying degrees of impact. Previous ways of checking into shopping malls and retail outlets would include scanning identification cards. TraceTogether tries to refine this process by handling contact tracing data directly to servers which relevant personnel can access. QR technology has replaced old barcode and metallic chip cards and has unequivocally transferred yet more functionality to the mobile phone.

What’s next in store suggests the implementation of a TraceTogether-only SafeEntry when the old system retires. From end-March onwards, students have been prompted to collect a Token from their schools if they do not have one. Malls, cinemas and other crowded places have to provide SafeEntry gateways starting April 19.

The idea of TraceTogether-only check-ins sounds desirable as it means the system would have undergone complete digital transformation, but it is still an uphill battle for policy makers as it depends on the flexibility of outliers to make the switch. This reality was observed in January, when some retailers unsuccessfully attempted TraceTogether-only check-ins, and some people were denied entry as they had not downloaded the TraceTogether App and did not have a Token. 

But, it would be quite exciting should a culture as revolutionary as e-payments come about in the near future.

Costs

However, such a promise would involve sustained funding to actively assess feedback and modify the existing infrastructure, puts strain on the government’s spending in other areas. The gravity of the matter had incurred a sizable, albeit justifiable cost to the establishment of TraceTogether.

At an estimated S$20 spent a pop, the TraceTogether Token ensured that the plan could be fulfilled sooner, as it targeted segments of the population that were relatively foreign to the use of digital technology.

So far, S$6.2 million has been spent on coming up with the TraceTogether Tokens, while the TraceTogether App took up a fraction of the costs at S$2.4 million. Assuming that the TraceTogether has already been considered successful in terms of its high adoption rates, the sum should fortunately increase marginally in the following years, so there is no need to be alarmed just yet.

Privacy Issues

Since its inception, many users of TraceTogether raised concerns about the digital integrity of the platform such as what data was collected, and how it was used. The general consensus was that their digital footprint might be exposed by hackers. They had a justifiable right to be worried, as the boundary between the physical and intangible digital world when removed, would leave them to the whim and fancies of malicious agents on the internet web.

The first response from the government was that TraceTogether is open-source, does not require GPS, and bluetooth data is encrypted. Shortly after, a brouhaha occurred when it was revealed that TraceTogether data could be for criminal investigations under the Criminal Procedure Code.

The second response from the government was that they had made a mistake and were unclear, and then passed an overwriting Bill that limits the use of said data, additionally deleting any contact tracing data after 25 days.

Had the reaction not been timely, the openness of TraceTogether would have been objectively compromised. Moreover, one would generally expect that TraceTogether can never be truly isolated from general laws, especially given that this is a government project.

In this day and age, the selling of consumer data has become commonplace among large tech companies that offer “free” internet services, so these concerns pale in comparison in the context of the vulnerability of possibly even more extensive data in the hands of foreign stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the level of trust and accountability in the status quo, momentarily lost due to last-minute panic, was restored after the amendments to legislation.

Foreseeable Future

Although TraceTogether has had encountered numerous bumps along the way since its infancy, it has also changed itself correspondingly. Business might start to implement TraceTogether-only check-ins. Batteries in the Token would have to be replaced and the check-in process should hopefully be faster in the long term.

There is also the possibility that penalties would be issued for TraceTogether misconduct. In 2020, over 7,500 fines were meted out to people who breached safe distancing rules and safe management measures in public spaces. 

In hindsight, TraceTogether remains to be the sole decentralised network that combats the spread of the coronavirus disease. In other words, it is the only clue one has in finding out whether one has been infected when travelling.

As the world slowly looks towards the resumption of global travel, an ideal outcome would see transparent signals of TraceTogether and conventional contact tracing protocols working hand in hand.

After all, it is the necessary defence to combat a virulent outbreak!

References and Citations

  1. Baharudin, H. (2021, March 14). Govt made mistake by not being upfront about TraceTogether data use; people accept explanation: PM Lee. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/government-made-mistake-by-not-being-upfront-about-tracetogether-use-for
  2. Chee, K. (2021, February 2). Bill limiting police use of TraceTogether data to serious crimes passed. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/bill-limiting-use-of-tracetogether-for-serious-crimes-passed-with-govt-assurances
  3. Lay, B.  (2020, June 12). Each TraceTogether wearable device cost S$20 to make, S$6 million contract for 300,000 Devices awarded on May 15. https://mothership.sg/2020/06/tracetogether-device-costs/
  4. Fern, O. S. (2021, April 1). Zoning restrictions relaxed for performing arts venues from April 24. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/zoning-restrictions-relaxed-for-performing-arts-venues-from-april-24
  5. Gene, N. K. (2021, April 5). Over 9,600 fines meted out in S’pore for Covid-19 breaches in past year. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/over-9600-fines-meted-out-in-spore-for-covid-19-breaches-in-past-year
  6. Koh, F. (2021, March 8). TraceTogether tokens can be collected from schools soon. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/tracetogether-tokens-can-be-collected-from-schools-soon
  7. OECD. (2020, October 14). Digital Government Index: 2019 results. https://www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government-index-4de9f5bb-en.htm
  8. Oh, T. (2021, March 17). Malls, cinemas, other crowded venues must roll out check-ins with new SafeEntry Gateway from April 19. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/malls-cinemas-other-crowded-venues-must-roll-out-check-ins-new-safeentry-gateway-april-19
  9. Ong, J. (2021, March 31). S’pore takes top spot in ranking of smart city govts, praised for ‘sterling’ Covid-19 response, digital initiatives. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/spore-takes-top-spot-ranking-smart-city-govts-praised-sterling-covid-19-response-digital
  10. Sin, Y. (2020, November 3). $13.8m spent so far on SafeEntry, TraceTogether contact-tracing tools. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/138m-spent-so-far-on-safeentry-tracetogether-contact-tracing-tools
  11. TraceTogether programme. (n.d.). https://support.tracetogether.gov.sg/hc/en-sg/categories/360004419594-TraceTogether-Programme
  12. Wong, C. (2021, February 27). Close to 90% of eligible residents on TraceTogether. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/close-to-90-of-eligible-residents-on-tracetogether

Wong, L., Sim, S., & Ismail, L. H. (2021, January 16). Stores told to hold off Tracetogether only check-ins. https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/stores-told-to-hold-off-tracetogether-only-check-ins

Posted by

With great power comes great responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s