Singapore Rules Out Apple, Google’s Contact-Tracing System (1)

June 16, 2020, 2:15 AM

Singapore said it won’t use a contact-tracing system jointly developed by Apple Inc. and Google to fight the coronavirus, opting instead for its own domestic technology.

The city-state becomes one of the first countries to officially rule out the Apple-Google software called Exposure Notification, which the Silicon Valley rivals unveiled in April in a rare collaboration. The system, which runs on iPhones and Android smartphones, enables users who test positive for Covid-19 to flag that data so others who they came into contact with over the previous few days can be notified.

After studying the technology, Singapore officials decided that they wanted a contact-tracing system with more detailed information and greater capability to sort through infection histories. The Apple-Google technology has to be integrated into public health apps.

“After careful consideration, we decided that it would be less effective in our local context,” Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post. “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.”

Apple, Google Bring Covid-19 Contact-Tracing to 3 Billion People

On Monday, the government said it will further relax restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus after judging the situation under control. The minister said human contact tracers will continue to play a central role in Singapore’s system because they can go beyond what technology alone can deliver.

“In my view, contact tracing remains a human endeavour requiring human judgment,” he wrote. “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.”

The policy decision illustrates how government priorities are clashing with privacy concerns in the era of the coronavirus. From Singapore to France and Australia, governments are looking to mobile apps to track and slow the spread of Covid-19. But limitations on data collection built into the smartphones of Apple and Google have hampered their capabilities.

Singapore is adopting an aggressive approach to combating the coronavirus. The city-state has developed its own mobile app called TraceTogether. It also plans to distribute a new portable, wearable device, called TraceTogether Token, to all of its 5.7 million residents. The token isn’t mandatory for now, though that may change depending on the take-up rate, Balakrishnan said last week.

Related story: Singapore Set to Give Out Virus Tracing Devices This Month

Singapore is moving ahead despite rising privacy concerns among citizens. The TraceTogether app only needed a phone number to register when it debuted in March. But this month, authorities updated the app to include identification numbers of users and passport numbers for visitors to the country.

“The government may have decided to take a more aggressive approach afterwards,” said Bryan Ma, Singapore-based vice president of device research at consultancy IDC.

The government’s TraceTogether Token program may cost roughly S$100 million ($72 million), based on the population and a previously awarded contract. Like its app, the token uses Bluetooth signals to record other nearby contact-tracing devices and would function in a similar way, according to the government. Balakrishnan has said the government won’t track locations of token users.

Read more: Singapore Considers Wearable Tech Devices For All to Trace Virus

Balakrishnan said previously the TraceTogether app didn’t work as well on iOS or Apple devices since they suspend Bluetooth activity while the app runs in the background. He said the government has had talks with Apple on the issue but has yet to find common ground.

“We’ve had repeated discussions both at the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution,” he said.

PCI Pte., a privately-held Singaporean electronics firm, won a S$6 million ($4.3 million) government contract to manufacture an initial batch of 300,000 tokens. The government plans to spend S$3.5 billion on information and communications technology in the current fiscal year as it plans to develop and deploy new tools like sensors and contact-tracing devices.

(Updates with Singapore’s easing from the fifth paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Yoolim Lee in Singapore at yoolim@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Edwin Chan at echan273@bloomberg.net

Peter Elstrom

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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