Tracking and tracing

Australia’s contact-tracing app is based on open-source software used in Singapore’s...
Australia’s contact-tracing app is based on open-source software used in Singapore’s TraceTogether app that has raised privacy and usability concerns. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Singapore’s quickly evolving contact-tracing system may well be a glimpse of the near future for New Zealand. Will these tech tools help? What are the risks? Bruce Munro takes a look.

Annabel McGregor is learning to play bridge — Singapore, Covid-19 lockdown-style bridge.

Singapore resident Annabel McGregor, formerly of Otago, supports all of  the city state’s...
Singapore resident Annabel McGregor, formerly of Otago, supports all of the city state’s measures to limit the spread of the Covid-19-causing coronavirus.
"It’s online, no masks needed," the ex-pat Kiwi and Singapore resident of 21 years says.

"We are not allowed to be in contact with anyone outside of the people we live with during these circuit-breaker measures."

McGregor lives on Singapore’s resort island of Sentosa with her husband, who works in the energy industry. They shifted their young family from Central Otago to the Asian island state just before the new millennium.

Life has changed dramatically for McGregor since the Singapore Government introduced "circuit-breaker" rules on April 3. Although New Zealand went a week earlier with its equivalent, the Level 4 lockdown, Singapore has employed some different, and in some cases more stringent, methods to tackle the spread of the virus.

For McGregor, that has meant getting used to mandatory wearing of masks in public.

"Masks have been a big thing," she says.

"We didn’t do it to start with, but then the Government said everyone needed to."

She has also voluntarily downloaded to her phone Singapore’s TraceTogether contact-tracing app.

"The app is a good thing. I just have to remember to turn it on when I go out."

The most recent change has been the introduction of a Quick Response (QR) code-based contact-tracing app linked to Singapore’s digital national identity card, SingPass. The SafeEntry app now controls, and collects data on, people entering commercial and government buildings throughout Singapore.

As far as McGregor is concerned, the biggest problem with SafeEntry is the long queues of people that build up at entry and exit points to larger and more popular shops.

"I can’t be bothered with that ... I’m now doing most of my shopping online."

Mall users in Singapore are being asked to use an identity card-linked QR code system. PHOTO:...
Mall users in Singapore are being asked to use an identity card-linked QR code system. PHOTO: REUTERS
This weekend, as New Zealanders enjoy their first substantial taste of freedom in seven weeks, the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak is the highest it has been since the last week of March. Everything depends on quick and effective ways of tracking down everyone who has been in contact with anyone infected. It is the Government’s only real strategy for preventing a return to economically and socially catastrophic Level 3 or 4 lockdowns.

A "gold standard"system of contact tracing is the key.

Health Minister David Clark says the country has quickly come up to speed and can now make 10,000 close-contact calls a day. The role of technology tools in contact tracing, however, is still unclear.

In late April the Ministry of Health seemed quite upbeat about a smartphone app that would let individuals and officials know when someone had been in contact with an infected person. It was likely to be ready for download within a fortnight, the ministry said.

By last week, the tone had changed. A ministry spokeswoman told The Weekend Mix the "functionality and timing" of an app rollout would be decided by Cabinet at some unknown future date.

A couple of days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was no longer even using the word "app" in her daily media briefings, preferring to talk of "technology tools" and briefly mentioning the possibility of a QR code system. Ardern said outright that manual tracing, not apps, would be at the forefront of the fight.

Internationally, contact-tracing tech tools are being deployed widely. From France to India and Norway to Australia, dozens of countries are using or rolling out their own contact-tracing apps.

In India, they are compulsory. In most countries they are not. Uptake, because of a mixture of privacy and usability concerns, has been a long way short of the 60% to 70% needed for them to be the primary infection-tracing tool.

Australia’s CovidSafe app, based on the software behind Singapore’s TraceTogether, has been downloaded 5.5million times but still is not operational because of performance and privacy concerns.

On this side of the ditch, despite the prospect recently being talked down by the Government, The Weekend Mix understands an app is likely and that an announcement could be made next week.

To understand what we might end up with, and what that might mean, Singapore is the natural place to look.

It is probable that New Zealand, if it is building a Bluetooth app, is also using Singapore’s open-source software. That app uses Bluetooth "handshakes" to log data about who the person has been in contact with. If someone gets Covid-19, authorities can use the data to get in touch with and, if need be, test or isolate everyone with whom they had contact.

Tim Vaughan, who shifted to Singapore in January, says any privacy concerns about the...
Tim Vaughan, who shifted to Singapore in January, says any privacy concerns about the TraceTogether app are overridden by health concerns for himself and his family. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
In January, Tim Vaughan, who is chief revenue officer for Education Perfect (EP), shifted to Singapore. While EP, a New Zealand-based online learning platform, has been growing quickly under the global lockdown, Vaughan and his family have been locked in a small inner-city Singapore apartment.

"We’ve shifted our lives almost entirely online," Vaughan says.

"There’s even a local brewery that says it can deliver within the hour."

Vaughan is a strong advocate of using technology to educate and solve problems. He has downloaded the TraceTogether app but finds having Bluetooth on and the app running in the foreground (which is necessary on iPhones) chews through his battery.

Google and Apple are collaborating to solve the iPhone battery issue.

Vaughan does have privacy concerns about the app because he does not know who holds the data that is being collected on his movements and on the people he comes into contact with. Similar privacy concerns are being expressed about contact-tracing apps worldwide. The conundrum is that not sharing the data with authorities, while it would protect privacy, would not allow effective contact tracing and containment of outbreaks.

In Australia, another privacy concern has emerged. Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department has said it could not give a "100% guarantee" the data, which is being hosted by Amazon Web Services, would not be accessed by United States law enforcement agencies.

The Singapore and Australian Governments have given assurances data will be deleted when the pandemic is over.

Despite his concerns, Vaughan is allowing the app to collect his data.

"I felt like, if I had come into contact with someone who was infectious, the immediacy of knowing that is more important than the longer-term concerns about privacy.

"I’m trusting the Government aren’t going to misuse the data."

Singapore might also be a window on New Zealand’s contact-tracing future because of its recent shift to the technology name-dropped by our prime minister — QR codes.

Simon Gordon, a Kiwi healthcare technology investor based in Singapore, says the Government there has made a sudden and noticeable shift towards QR code-based contact tracing.

"It seems Singapore has pivoted away from the app to QR code scanning whenever you enter anywhere of note, similar to China’s strategy," Gordon says.

Expat Kiwi Jamin Jamieson says this week a QR code-based contact-tracing system linked to digital...
Expat Kiwi Jamin Jamieson says this week a QR code-based contact-tracing system linked to digital identification cards has been made compulsory for entering businesses and other buildings throughout Singapore.
Jamin Jamieson, another Kiwi who has been living in Singapore for the past decade, has also noticed the policy pivot.

Jamieson manages projects for an independent news outlet, Rice Media. About a fortnight ago, he started having to queue to enter his local mall for his morning coffee. At the head of the queue was a security guard checking everyone’s temperature and making sure they used a new app, SafeEntry, to scan a QR code before being allowed in.

Once inside, Jamieson also has to scan a code to be allowed into individual shops. The code has to be scanned one last time when exiting the mall.

Scanning the QR code records time and location so that contacts can be traced by health officials if someone tests positive for Covid-19.

To identify contacts, SafeEntry is linked to Singapore’s compulsory identity card and its digital avatar SingPass.

At first, QR code scanning popped up at the entrance to just a few buildings, Jamieson says. This week, it became compulsory for almost all commercial and government buildings, including supermarkets, offices, factories, malls, hotels, schools, universities, hospitals and clinics. It has also been extended to all of Singapore’s 18,000 taxis.

There has been discussion in the Singapore media about the value of merging the TraceTogether and SafeEntry apps. Singapore authorities are also reported to be considering wristband devices for people without smartphones.

Jamieson says the level of restrictions on people’s lives, including the compulsory SafeEntry system, is surprising given new daily cases of Covid-19 among Singapore residents is in single digits.

"I think I do get it. I know because of how close, how congested the city is, another outbreak could be a huge disaster," he says.

"But what is interesting to me is ... how quickly you have to adapt, otherwise you might be breaking the law. If you went to sleep for a week and then woke up there might be three or four new laws you have to get up to speed with before you go out."

If this is the sort of tech contact tracing that is planned for New Zealand, no-one is saying.

Interestingly, this week, the Dunedin and Wellington City Councils have both launched QR code systems to help businesses contact trace employees and customers.

Both use the Rippl app, created by Wellington software developer Paperkite. The system works like SafeEntry, but with one important difference; the data is not stored on a government server but on the person’s phone.

Graeme Riley, who is the Dunedin City Council's chief information officer, believes a centralised...
Graeme Riley, who is the Dunedin City Council's chief information officer, believes a centralised contact-tracing app would not be welcome.
That is key to protecting privacy, Graeme Riley, the Dunedin City Council’s new chief information officer, says.

With Rippl, if a person tests positive, the Ministry of Health asks Paperkite to send a message that only appears on the phones of those with the app who were in the same vicinity at the same time. The messaging will give advice on what steps to take. It is up to the individual to take that action because the authorities will not know who they are.

"If you were to take it further and had all that data recorded about where individuals were, it’s really breaching data privacy, and starts to become quite a concern," Riley says.

"People will become very reticent about downloading an app that is actually tracking them."

The down side is that the Ministry of Health cannot use that sort of decentralised app to trace and appraise people who have been in contact with an infected person.

Whether a centralised app is the ministry’s preference is unknown.

"There is no central guidance yet as to what they are doing ... I think everyone has been holding out for that guidance," Riley says.

His guess is that a decentralised option will prevail over a genuine contact-tracing app.

"I think there would be a massive backlash from the New Zealand population," he says.

Thomas Beagle, chairman of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, says strict criteria and...
Thomas Beagle, chairman of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, says strict criteria and strong guarantees would be required if a contact-tracing app was introduced here.
Thomas Beagle is not so sure. The chairman of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties believes a contact-tracing app could be acceptable — with certain conditions and guarantees.

"We don’t think New Zealanders’ lives should be able to be tracked by the Government. At the same time, this is a special case," Beagle, who is based in Carterton, says.

The Government would need to make a sound case that this level of privacy invasion is needed, he says.

The State should make the software open source so its capabilities could be verified, he adds. And it should also give assurances that the data would only be used for pandemic contact tracing and would be deleted after the pandemic ends.

The prospect of a nationwide personal identity card being introduced at the same time to make contact tracing easier has been all but ruled out by the Government.

In response to questions by The Weekend Mix, a Government spokesman said he did not believe it was being looked at "at present" but would check. The next day, a Department of Internal Affairs spokesman said the Government was "not looking at the possibility of a national personal identification system".

In response to other questions, the Health Minister reiterated that his ministry was working on "additional technology" and that "Cabinet will consider their proposals shortly".

"However," Dr Clark added, "the public can be confident that protecting the privacy and personal data of New Zealanders is of primary importance to the Ministry of Health as it develops technology options, and of the Government as it considers them."

On Sentosa Island, Annabel McGregor only knows, indirectly, of one person who has contracted Covid-19, and that was while they were in the United Kingdom. Having had an Easter trip to New Zealand cancelled and now hoping against hope that a July visit will take place, she continues to be a strong supporter of the tracing app and other measures Singapore has taken.

"It’s a great way ... of monitoring people’s movements," she says.

"I assume my details are safe.

"I’m doing this to help Singapore."

In the interim, there’s plenty of time for another game of bridge.

Footnote: The New Zealand government’s NZ Covid Tracer app, released on Wednesday, works much like the Rippl app described in this story.

Those who sign up to the NZ Covid Tracer app provide name, email address and phone number, which is stored by the Ministry of Health (MoH). Location data, which accrues through the use of QR codes at commercial premises, is stored securely on users’ phones. If someone tests positive for Covid-19, a notification message is sent to all phones with the app.

Software on the phone checks the location information sent by the message against location history on the phone. The message only shows up on those phones that were at the location at the time the infected person was there. The message will ask recipients to contact the MoH, allowing contact tracing and possible testing. It is understood Level 2 legislation needs to be amended to enable the app to replace the physical register of employees and clients that many businesses are currently required to keep.

 

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