Singapore launches COVID-19 contact tracing app

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
(SCREENCAPS: Google Play)

SINGAPORE — The Government Technology Agency (GovTech) on Friday (20 March) launched a mobile app in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to aid in contact tracing efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The TraceTogether app, available for download on Google Play and the App Store, works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between mobile phones to detect other participating app users in close proximity.

Users have to be within two metres of each other for about 30 minutes for their data to be logged in the app, which is believed to be the first of its kind worldwide.

In a joint press release, GovTech and MOH said records of such encounters are stored locally on each user’s phone. “If a user is interviewed by MOH as part of contact tracing efforts, he/she can consent to send his/her TraceTogether data to MOH”, they said.

“This facilitates the contact tracing process, and enables contact tracers to inform TraceTogether users who are close contacts of COVID-19 cases more quickly. This enables users to take the necessary action sooner, such as monitoring his own health closely,” said GovTech and MOH.

“Early detection could potentially help reduce the risk of the spread of the virus, and better protect our families and loved ones,” they added.

If users are contacted for contact tracing, they can be compelled under the Infectious Diseases Act to send their app data to the health ministry. However, users can withdraw their consent to using the app and delete it at any point in time, prior to being contacted.

Privacy safeguards in place

In its press release, GovTech and MOH said users have to give their explicit consent to participate in TraceTogether - including having their mobile number and app data to be used for contact tracing - at the initial set up of the app.

“When requested by MOH, users can send their TraceTogether logs to facilitate the contact tracing process. Up to that point, the authorities, including MOH and GovTech, have no knowledge of the user’s TraceTogether data. The TraceTogether logs are only deciphered and analysed after the user sends the information,” they added.

At the set-up stage, users only need to enter their phone numbers. “TraceTogether does not collect or use location data of any kind, and does not access a user’s phone contact list or address book,” said GovTech and MOH.

The TraceTogether logs are also encrypted. “The logs do not contain the user’s phone numbers but a set of cryptographically generated temporary IDs. The logs leave his/her phone only when he/she uses the app to send the information to the authorities to facilitate contact tracing,” they added.

The TraceTogether app has been in development for about eight weeks. It was developed by a core team of about 20 GovTech volunteers, supported by many others from several agencies

The authorities aim to promote it to large organisations, although there are no plans to mandate the downloading of the app. The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDG) will work with the public and private sectors to raise awareness and encourage adoption of the app.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, as well as Education, told reporters, “It means that poor memory will no longer slow down the process of contact tracing.”

He added that the app “preserves a fair degree of privacy”

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