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Digital Transformation in Government Insight #102:
Singapore’s open source contact tracing for COVID-19

Singapore’s TraceTogether uses BlueTooth to enable easier and more accurate contact tracing as part of Singapore’s fight against COVID-19.

Salsa Digital 7 April 2020

Singapore’s TraceTogether

Singapore’s TraceTogether was launched on 20 March to help Singapore fight COVID-19 through contact tracing. It’s one of many examples of how digital transformation in government is being used to fight COVID-19. 

What is contact tracing?

When someone is diagnosed with COVID-19 one of the first steps is to complete a detailed contact tracing process. Given it can take up to 14 days for COVID-19 symptoms to appear, people are asked to provide a detailed account of who they’ve seen (and where they’ve been) in the past 14 days prior to symptoms. This helps health officials track down people who may have been exposed to the disease. 

Why contact tracing?

Many countries have had great success with contact tracing as a way to slow down the virus’s spread during the early days/weeks. For example, both Singapore and Korea cite contact tracing as one of the key factors in their success in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Being able to trace people who’ve been exposed and immediately isolate them helps to prevent the spread. 

How TraceTogether works

TraceTogether relies on as many people as possible installing the app. In Singapore, over 1 million people downloaded TraceTogether. This represents over one-sixth of Singapore’s population. 

Once people have installed the app, they need to leave the app open with BlueTooth on. The app records proximity data when the person is close to someone else with the app installed. Then, if the person is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can give Singapore’s Ministry of Health access to the app’s data to help with contact tracing. 

In terms of privacy protection a few safeguards are in place:

  • The app doesn’t track location or contacts

  • The proximity data is deleted after 21 days

  • People’s mobile numbers are paired with a random ID and it’s the ID rather than the actual number that’s exchanged (it’s only if the user gives the Ministry of Health access to their phone for contact tracing that the data is de-anonymised) 

Who developed TraceTogether?

TraceTogether was developed by SGUnited, GovTech and Singapore’s Ministry of Health.

Open sourcing TraceTogether

TraceTogether is being open sourced and other countries, including Australia and the UK, have been looking at implementing some sort of digital contact tracing. This University of Melbourne article looks at the potential application in Australia. In NSW, work is already well underway on ConTrace, an Australian version of TraceTogether. 

Salsa Digital’s take

While there are certainly still some privacy concerns with TraceTogether, it does provide a quick and easy way to perform contact tracing. Given the spread of COVID-19, it’s possible people will decide the benefits outweigh their concerns, especially given it would help with more casual contact tracing, such as being in the supermarket near someone who later tests positive to COVID-19. It could also be useful once the stay-at-home guidelines are lifted and people venture into social situations again. Having a system like TraceTogether setup and ready to go also means we’ll be prepared if/when another virus hits the world.

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