Singapore—Former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, who is known to be a staunch supporter of the ruling party PAP administration, unexpectedly praised an article from the Workers’ Party’s Gerald Giam concerning the country’s TraceTogether device.
Mr Giam had served as Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) from 2011 to 2015.
Mr Cheng called the article Mr Giam had written on his website, Resolving the $100 million TraceTogether dilemma, “worth reading,” since in his opinion Mr Giam had “spent time thinking through the technical aspects” as well as what would be a viable alternative, “Instead of spreading conspiracy theories or raising a ruckus about privacy.”
Mr Giam’s article has been viewed almost 10,500 times as of the writing of this piece. He argues that Singapore’s TraceTogether app should “be re-programmed to adopt Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications system” in order for it to run on every smartphone.
This would “maximise adoption, protect privacy, enable cross-border interoperability,” and therefore “become a real weapon in our battle against Covid-19.”
Moreover, this would mean that only nine percent of Singapore residents would need to use the TraceTogether device that the Government introduced last week. This, he said, would save the country more than S$100 million in taxpayer money.
Mr Giam also argued that the contact tracing apps used in Japan and Switzerland, which make use of software that Apple and Google created together, protect end-users privacy.
This software, called the Exposure Notifications System, “uses Bluetooth technology to help health authorities perform contact tracing, while ensuring that user privacy and data security remain central to the design.”
Singapore’s TraceTogether app, in the meantime, was based on a different protocol. In March, the government had worked with Apple and Google to allow for “cross-border interoperability,” but last week, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, said in Parliament, “We have had repeated discussions at both the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution.”
Hence the need for the wearable device, which will end up costing S$110 million.
Mr Giam then went on to explain the different contact tracing methods used. While TraceTogether uses a centralised report processing protocol, the protocol developed by Google and Apple, Exposure Notifications, uses a decentralised report processing protocol.
And because contact tracing is an integral part of controlling the pandemic, Mr Giam makes the case for using the Exposure Notifications System, because it “provides both privacy protections and privileged operating system access to allow contact tracing apps to work on almost all smartphones, even when they are locked.
By improving privacy protections and reducing the battery drain on phones, an enhanced TraceTogether app will become more attractive for Singapore residents to install on their phones, improving its current 25% adoption rate to a level closer to what is needed for effective contact tracing.”
But while the TraceTogether device is already in production, Mr Giam writes that it’s not too late to adapt to the protocol other countries use.
“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. The wearable device then only needs to be issued to the 9% of residents who don’t own a smartphone, saving taxpayers over $100 million.”
Dr Balakrishan addressed the issue in a Facebook post a few hours later, writing, “However, after careful consideration, we decided that it would be less effective in our local context. Although a potential close contact would be notified by 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.
In my view, contact tracing remains a human endeavour requiring human judgement. Technology is only a supplement, not a replacement for humans. Our system will enable the contact tracers to identify the people, venues and activities that pose the greatest risk and enable us to take quick action to treat and isolate any potential patient. We need to entrust human contact tracers with information during this crisis. Perhaps my medical background makes me feel strongly that patients should be informed of a diagnosis, implications and options by a human being – and not a machine.”
Several people have asked why we are not using the Exposure Notification System created by Apple and Google for contact…