Commentary: Singapore’s almost in our new normal. Don’t be the dud who jeopardises that


SINGAPORE: The Government’s major expansion of the TraceTogether and SafeEntry programmes, announced on Wednesday (Sep 9) represents a huge stride in Singapore’s coronavirus fight.

Highlighting the TraceTogether app has logged 2.4 million downloads to date, Smart Nation Initiative Minister-in-charge Vivian Balakrishnan said the Government will pilot the requirement for a TraceTogether token or app to be used with SafeEntry in some locations, fusing the digital check-in system with the proximity data collection mechanism.

The TraceTogether programme’s ability to find total strangers who have crossed paths already goes hand-in-hand with analogue, manual contact tracing efforts that try to work out known acquaintances coronavirus patients have come into contact with.

But this further collaboration between the two systems provides authorities with an even larger net from which to obtain and triangulate data quicker and more rigorously.

The Government’s second announcement extending the TraceTogether token programme to Singapore residents in phases, with tokens available from Sep 14 onwards, will also give TraceTogether a larger catchment.

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A third announcement to launch a new self-check service and SMS service on Sep 10 alerting those who have visited venues the same time as COVID-19 cases, based on SafeEntry records, will benefit Singapore residents. 

Being alerted if they have been close to new COVID-19 cases will prompt them to self-isolate, watch for symptoms or get themselves tested.

The sum of all three moves will aid Singapore’s efforts to address the risk of spread in densely-populated places like shopping malls that may be extended to more activities when large-scale events can resume.

The integrated system may even replace the need to check into every small store on SafeEntry.

PRIVACY CONCERNS HAVE BEEN LARGELY SQUARED OFF

These developments to fuse both systems together are not unexpected, given that the TraceTogether app already has an integrated function allowing users to scan SafeEntry QR codes.

TraceTogether tokens

TraceTogether tokens are seen before being distributed to residents at Jalan Besar Community Club in Singapore, Sep 14, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

As Dr Balakrishnan has highlighted, the average time to obtain contact data has already been brought down from three to four days to under one day so greater adoption gives us more to look forward to.

Yet the Government understands these benefits will only be realised if TraceTogether adoption is widespread, but achieving that figure of 70 per cent or more mentioned by Dr Balakrishnan requires prior concerns to be squared off. 

Chiefly, fixes to allow the app to work in the background and arrest battery drain issues have been rolled out. But authorities know data collection concerns too must be tackled.

French security researcher Baptiste Robert told news outlet CNET in April: 

Singapore is a very good example of not getting adoption, even with a privacy-preserving app. Technically, everything was well done … (but) people don’t understand the technical details behind the app, they just understand ‘the government wants to trace me’.

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Hence, it was useful Dr Balakrishnan reaffirmed the Government’s stance that this enhanced data collection will not be undertaken at the expense of personal privacy. 

The Government also organised a “tear-down” where four external experts examined the insides of the token to ascertain that the token only did what it was designed to do in July.

Reassuringly, despite the initial reservations about personal information surrounding digital contact tracing all those months ago, TraceTogether and SafeEntry programmes have achieved an impressive amount of trust. The TraceTogether app has now been downloaded by 40 per cent of the population and 10,000 tokens have been distributed.

With the latest distribution of tokens to all residents the percentage of residents with TraceTogether capability will rise significantly.

Coupled with the circuit breaker, advisories on masks and safe distancing, each step of Singapore’s coronavirus journey has been taken with firmer resolve despite initial public misgivings, representing a rising level of trust. Surveys, like the Silver Generation Office’s and YouGov’s, show a majority of respondents would carry a TraceTogether token.

Expert scrutiny, like the MIT Tech Review’s evaluation of TraceTogether, giving the programme strong ratings based on safeguards on data usage, collection and deletion, may have helped change people’s minds.

People wearing protective face masks (9)

File photo of pedestrians wearing protective face masks along Orchard Rd in Singapore on Sep 9, 2020. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Another piece of evidence of this growing “trust bank” is the presence, alongside SafeEntry QR codes at the entrances of supermarkets and shopping malls, of QR codes of other national programmes such as information on jobs availability that ride on SafeEntry’s modus operandi.

BUILDING ON TRUST TO FIGHT COVID-19

I would argue these developments augurs well for Singapore, where hard-earned trust sets the foundation on which the war on COVID-19 will be progressively won.

Fighting COVID-19 is like fighting a spreading forest fire, requiring us to identify the fire’s spread at the edges in close to real-time and concentrating resources to arrest any spread.

These apps can provide real-time data that reveal people’s behaviours and patterns that form a larger operating picture of where exposure to the virus occurs and why, augmenting our national networked approach to countering the coronavirus.

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With sufficient information, Singapore’s approach could also take a pre-emptive bent to focus on population clusters susceptible to the next outbreak.

But the trust underpinning these systems is a two-way street. As the Government continues to build and protect the trust that created in its responses to the pandemic, such national-level efforts would be vain if the best laid plans are blatantly ignored by the majority and few pay heed to measures because they lack the conviction needed for complete compliance.

leong chee mun

Leong Chee Mun was fined S$5,000 for co-hosting a gathering for 16 guests during the circuit breaker, when stay-home curbs were in force to control COVID-19’s spread. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

We only have to look at the many countries that have failed to rein in the pandemic to understand how the lack of individual responsibility has corroded a critical atmosphere of trust and has led to more outbreaks.

Meanwhile in Singapore, generally large conformity with restrictions and rules arising from trust in the national strategy to combat the coronavirus has benefited all.

Community infection rates have seen huge improvement, allowing for a further relaxation of restrictions on wedding sizes, some religious gatherings and more since the circuit breaker lifted in June.

The Government’s decision last week to allow some business events of up to 250 attendees to proceed from October onwards also bodes well for the eventual relaxation of international travel and the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions sector, activities that form huge parts of Singapore’s pre-coronavirus economy on which many more sectors, businesses and jobs rely on.

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These developments in Singapore’s contact tracing system protect people’s health and are to be warmly welcomed.

Trust can breed assurance, allowing us to venture into the new normal with confidence that the systems in place and the collective responsibility of the community will provide an adequate level of protection when more restrictions are lifted.

It’s been seven months since Singapore went into DORSCON Orange. We have come so far through sacrifices made by organisations, businesses and people.

The last thing we want is for those hard-earned gains to be lost because people flout the rules or remain skittish about such contact tracing technologies on the basis of wrong understanding of how they work.

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Bryan Tan is partner at law firm Pinsent Masons and a former Singapore chapter president of the Internet Society.



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