Singapore’s TraceTogether tokens are the latest attempt to use Covid-19 with technology. But they also resumed discussions about privacy.
Wearable devices complement the existing contact tracking application on the island, which allows you to identify people who may have been infected by those who tested positive for the virus.
All users need to do is carry one, and the battery lasts up to nine months without recharging – which, according to one expert, “overwhelmed” him.
The government agency that developed the devices recognizes that tokens – and technology in general – are not a “silver bullet,” but they should strengthen the efforts of people who track contacts.
Thousands of vulnerable elderly people who do not have smartphones will be the first to receive devices.
To do this, they had to provide their national IDs and phone numbers – users of the TraceTogether application recently had to start doing the same.
If users of the key have a positive result for the disease, they must transfer their device to the Ministry of Health, because – unlike the application – they cannot transmit data via the Internet.
Contact tracers will then use the logs to identify and advise other people who may have been infected.
“It’s very boring in what he does, so I think it’s a good design,” says hardware designer Sean Cross.
He was one of four experts invited to test one of the devices before they were launched. The group was shown all of its components, but was not allowed to turn it on.
“It can correlate with whom you were, with whom you became infected and, most importantly, who could infect you,” adds Mr. Cross.
Singapore was the first country to deploy a national coronavirus tracking application.
Local authorities say 2.1 million people have downloaded software, which is about 35% of the population.
It is voluntary for everyone except migrant workers living in dormitories, which make up the majority of the 44,000 or more Singaporean infections.
The government says the app helped isolate some people faster than would otherwise be possible.
But by his own admission, technology does not work the way it was hoped for.
On the iPhone, the application must be launched in the foreground so that Bluetooth “handshakes” occur, which means that users cannot use their phones for anything else. This is also a huge battery drain. Android devices do not face the same problem.
Automatic contact tracking can theoretically be extremely effective, but only if a large percentage of the population is involved.
Thus, Apple device owners are likely to be among others asking for keys in the near future.
When the token was first announced in early June, public reaction was against the government – which is a relatively rare occurrence in Singapore.
Wilson Lowe launched an online petition calling for him to abandon him. Nearly 54,000 people signed up.
“All that prevents the Singapore government from becoming a surveillance state is the emergence and mandatory use of such a wearable device,” the petition says.
“Then there will be laws that state that these devices cannot be turned off. [and must] to stay on a person always – thus, deciding our fate as a police state. “
Ministers note that the devices do not register GPS location data and do not connect to mobile networks, so they cannot be used to monitor human movements.
Mr. Cross agrees that from what they showed him, the keys cannot be used as location trackers.
But he adds that the scheme is still less focused on privacy than the model promoted by Apple and Google, which is widely used elsewhere.
“In the end, the ministry of health can move from this mysterious, secret number that only they know to a physical number,” he explains.
In contrast, apps based on the Apple and Google models warn users if they are in danger but do not reveal their identities to authorities. It depends on the people, for example, when they register for testing.
Dr. Michael Weil, a digital rights expert at University College London, warns of a possible creep mission.
He gives an example in which a government fighting Covid-19 might want to establish quarantine control. This can be done, he says, by installing Bluetooth sensors in public places to identify users who are outside the home and when they need to be self-insulated at home.
“All you have to do is set up the physical infrastructure in the world, and the data you collect can be matched with Singapore ID numbers,” he explains.
“Buildability is the most troublesome part.”
But the official in charge of the agency responsible for TraceTogether downplays such concerns.
“There is trust between the government and the people, and there is data protection,” says Kok Ping Sung, executive director of GovTech.
He adds that he hopes the public will recognize that health authorities need this data to protect them and their loved ones.
Another reason Singapore prefers its own scheme to Apple over Google is that it can give epidemiologists a better idea of the spread of the outbreak.
In part, this was the reason the UK government initially resisted the tech giant’s initiative until its own efforts to circumvent Apple’s restrictions on Bluetooth were able to pass the test.
If wearable products in Singapore work as expected, other countries may be tempted.
“[With more data]You can make political decisions that very carefully link restrictions or obligations only to high-risk activities. Otherwise, you will have many rougher tools left, ”comments privacy expert Roland Turner, another member of the group invited by Singapore to test their equipment.
“Perhaps there is a paradoxical consequence that greater freedoms are possible.”