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Last update: March 2020

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Singapore Releases COVID-19 App to Stem Spread of Coronavirus

As the world undergoes the global COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is stepping up to their own responsibilities to battle the virus. This ranges from governments and private institutions down to the individual level. Governments release coronavirus testing while people engage in social distancing. Meanwhile, technology also plays an important role. The Singapore government has just released a COVID-19 tracing app called TraceTogether that tracks everybody a smartphone user has been in contact with over the past 3 weeks. Doing this, it is able to track people who are infected with coronavirus, and who they might spread it to.

However, what are the data privacy ramifications of a contact tracing app like TraceTogether? How does it work, and how does it differ from similar apps that have been launched? Most importantly, how can an app maximize the effect of contact tracing while respecting its users’ data privacy?

TraceTogether App Helps Slow Spread of COVID-19

One of the most dangerous aspects of COVID-19 is symptoms appear two weeks after someone has been infected. This means a person can be a carrier of the virus and infect other people unawares. And it can be difficult to recall everyone you’ve come into contact with over the course of fourteen days, and whether you might be at risk.

TraceTogether, developed by the government of Singapore, works somewhat differently from other tracking apps that have been put towards stemming the spread of coronavirus. Rather than top-down governmental tracking of device users, TraceTogether takes more of a community-focused approach. Devices with the app downloaded emit Bluetooth signals to detect other TraceTogether users nearby. It provides timestamps, and can identify whether the duration and proximity of contact between two users is enough to qualify as a risk.

How Does This Differ From Previous COVID-19 Tracking Measures?

There has been a great deal of media attention on how China and South Korea have tracked citizens’ smartphones to successfully slow the spread of COVID-19. Of course, China has a different approach to mass government surveillance to most Western countries, as well as a memory of the SARS outbreak of 2003. Both of these countries have tracked the movement of smartphone users through their location data. And they have seen positive results, with China recently reporting no new local infections.

However, it may be hard to get Western countries on board with such a move that takes data privacy into a disquieting gray area. According to Wired.com:

“In South Korea, the authorities have sent out texts detailing the movements of specific people infected with Covid-19, stirring up public shaming and rumor-mongering. The government is also using a smartphone app to ensure people stay home when they have been ordered to quarantine themselves.”

China has furthermore been using the WeChat and AliPay apps to join the fight against COVID-19 by assigning people different levels of mandated quarantine by a color code. And there is worry that sensitive personal data will be retained by government authorities after the crisis has passed.

Image Source: https://www.gov.sg/article/help-speed-up-contact-tracing-with-tracetogether

The Mechanisms of TraceTogether

TraceTogether, developed by SGUnited, GovTech, and the Singapore Ministry of Health, combines collective social distancing with a more progressive concern for individual data privacy. First of all, the social mapping does not occur through governmental monitoring. Rather, it occurs through device-to-device communication via Bluetooth. Then, if a user comes down with coronavirus, they can choose to alert the Ministry of Health of their condition. The entire process occurs with the user’s consent. Participation in contact tracing is a voluntary act of social responsibility, rather than mandatory government tracking.

TraceTogether also has measures in place to protect users’ data privacy, as per their website:

  • The app does not track users’ location or contacts. If an individual has COVID-19, then they are the ones who upload their data to facilitate contact tracing.
  • Data remains locally on the device, and is not accessed. After 21 days, data is deleted.
  • Actual data tracking is anonymous. Users enter their mobile number to pair with a random ID. The ID is what is exchanged between phones, rather than an identifiable number

Cellphone Tracking Versus Peer-To-Peer

The White House is also in communication with tech giants Facebook and Google to organize a similar strategy. However, their tactic to map smartphone owners’ data differs in one crucial aspect from that of TraceTogether. Where Singapore’s data tracking is facilitating through an app – which users voluntarily download onto their phones and give permission to access their location and other data – the White House is requesting Facebook and Google to provide user location data they already possess.

The data privacy implications for this move would be vast. The strategy itself presents such an ethical quandary that even Facebook, with its history of playing fast and loose with users’ personal data, seems hesitant. However, those in communication with the White House insist that all data will be aggregate and anonymous. Most importantly, the program will not serve as a government tracking database.

TraceTogether: An Ethical COVID-19 App

Overall, Singapore’s approach seems to strike a balance between individual privacy and social responsibility. Their approach to data security is parallel to that envisioned by OpenBack and used in our default push notification architecture. Like TraceTogether, OpenBack leverages user data locally, so that it never has to leave the device and remains in the user’s ownership at all times. Because of this approach, OpenBack is fully HIPAA compliant, and can be used to leverage sensitive medical or health data. OpenBack achieves this through edge computing. TraceTogether does it through short bursts of Bluetooth that recognize each other from apps downloaded to devices in the near vicinity.

Ideally, a COVID-19 app similar to TraceTogether could work in western countries as well. If used on a wide scale, it would achieve similar results to its use in Singapore. However, would citizens, many of of whom need to be wrangled to comply with lockdown mandates in the US and Europe, go along with it?

To learn more about OpenBack’s radical approach to data privacy and mobile engagement, get in touch with one of our experts.

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