TraceTogether Programme (PQ Reply by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan)
Thirteenth Parliament Of Singapore - Second Session For The Sitting On 5 June 2020
Oral Reply by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs
Let me recap for Members what TraceTogether does. TraceTogether is basically a contact tracing app which uses your phone’s Bluetooth function to detect other phones nearby. It keeps a record of other TraceTogether users whom you happen to be in close contact with. It encrypts and stores this data on your own handphone. If in the unlikely event you turn out to be positive or diagnosed with COVID-19, this data is then uploaded to MOH, and the contact tracing teams in MOH use this to quickly identify, isolate patients, quarantine people who may be at risk or have been infected by you and can transmit the disease onwards.
Today, TraceTogether has been downloaded on a voluntary basis by 1.5 million users.
The number of downloads, particularly given that it is voluntary, is encouraging. Unfortunately, the app does not appear to work as well on iOS or Apple devices as the iOS operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background. 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.
Because TraceTogether does not work equally well across all smart phones, we have decided, therefore, at this point in time, not to mandate the compulsory use of TraceTogether. Instead, we are developing and will soon roll out a portable wearable device that will achieve the same objective as TraceTogether, but will not depend on possession of a smart phone. If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. I believe this will be more inclusive, and it will ensure that all of us will be protected.
Notwithstanding the limitations of coverage today, the data from TraceTogether has already been a very helpful additional tool for our contact tracers, especially when it is used in combination with other data sources. In some cases, it has improved the contact tracing process by automatically generating a preliminary list of close contacts for quarantine, and thereby it reduces the time taken to isolate these contacts, and prevents them from spreading the disease more extensively. I would like to emphasise that contact tracing remains a professional skill that is ultimately dependent on human judgement. Technology is an enabler; it is not a replacement for human judgement.
We thank those who have voluntarily downloaded the app to-date, and we urge more to download the app. We have also just upgraded the app to register the NRIC / FIN of the user, in addition to the user’s mobile number, so that we can more quickly establish the link between the identity of the confirmed cases and their close contacts. To Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s question, we do not, at this point in time, have the breakdown by gender or age, because such data is not currently collected by the app.
Yesterday, we issued a written response to Mr Murali Pillai who had asked about the confidentiality of the data, and I think it is worth me reiterating that again, that the data is stored only on your own phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH only if the individual tests positive for COVID-19. This data is only used for contact tracing. There are safeguards, including encryption, in place to protect this from malicious hackers. The data that is older than 25 days will be automatically deleted from your phone. If the close contact data is required for contact tracing, only a small group of authorised officers in MOH will have access to it. All the public sector data protection rules will also apply.
I need to emphasise again that quick and accurate contact tracing is a necessity. In fact, it has become all the more essential now that we are emerging from the circuit breaker. Because if you think about it, if everyone is at home, in fact, the need for contacting tracing is minimal. But now that we have more people moving about, going to work, there will be more occasions when more people will have more close interactions with each other. Therefore the collection and use of this data for contact tracing becomes even more essential. It will speed up the isolation of close contacts, and reduce the risk of them spreading COVID-19 to their loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues and the community at large. If we can reduce the incidence of clusters by better and faster contact tracing, then we can avoid having to re-introduce restrictive circuit breaker measures in the future. So I hope all members of the public will work with us to achieve this.