Picture this: on an unusually breezy Singaporean evening, you’re quietly sitting in a local park. Perhaps you’re reading a newspaper or maybe just daydreaming. A few other people are using the park too, enjoying some exercise or savouring a few moments outside. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, no-one dares come too close.
Silently, as you sit, your phone is busy. In particular, your new TraceTogether app is saving ID codes associated with the phones of those around you. Using Bluetooth, it is scanning your surroundings and secretly noting down the codes of those who linger nearby.
This data or “cryptographically generated temporary IDs” are stored on your own phone for 21 days. They are not accessible to you. But, if you were to get sick with COVID-19, the data on your phone can be uploaded by the Ministry of Health, decrypted, and used to identify who was in the park with you that day and anyone else you spent time with. This aids the Ministry’s process of “contact tracing” through which the government tracks those who have potentially come into contact with the virus.
The app, a product of the Ministry of Health, SG United and GovTech Singapore, quickly became overwhelmingly popular with over 620,000 sign-ups within the first three days of its 20 March release. Opinions about the app were sharply divided and Singaporeans took to social media to express them. Some embraced the app as a valuable tool for fighting back against the virus. “It’s not only about ourselves, what about your family and close friends, don’t you want them to be notified asap, so in case they got it, [they] can still be treated earlier?” said Goh Chye Huat Dean in a Facebook comment on the 23 March.
“Those who like to carry a tracking device on them go ahead. Why would I want to install spyware on my mobile?”
Several other countries have also now deployed, or are about to deploy, apps like TraceTogether. Google and Apple have promised to build similar tracking technology into their operating systems. But as we move into this “new normal” of app-ified surveillance, personal privacy is not the only thing at stake—such technologies may have consequences that last long beyond the pandemic itself.
The story of TraceTogether begins with a movement called “citizen science.” Over the last twenty years, ordinary people have pioneered ways of doing their own scientific endeavours. Either working with professionals in labs, or by making their own tools and instruments, they have found ways to develop knowledge and technologies. For example, in Japan after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, in response to the lack of government transparency about radiation levels, citizens devised their own DIY radiation monitors that could collect and share information about their neighbourhoods.
Citizen science showed how members of a community could work together and share data and information for the common good. Although they were not always successful, such efforts were based on the idea that collective action and community engagement around science and technology can solve important social problems.
Citizen science showed how members of a community could work together and share data and information for the common good.
Citizen science movements also invented some important new uses for technologies. Using Bluetooth for peer-to-peer communication between smartphones, for instance, was pioneered in situations in which de-centralization was crucial. In the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” protests in Hong Kong, activists used “Firechat”—an app that allowed a smartphone to exchange messages using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. More recently, in the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, activists have used “Bridgefy” to create peer-to-peer or “mesh” networks that can communicate without a Wi-Fi or cellular network.
TraceTogether takes this same peer-to-peer technology and deploys it in a new way. For GovTech, the agency leading Singapore’s “smart nation” and digital transformation initiatives, figuring out the details of how to reliably exchange ID numbers via Bluetooth was the most crucial aspect of the app’s development. The team had to learn about the hardware of smartphones and “drill deep into the Bluetooth hardware stack” reported Jason Bay, Senior Director of Government Digital Services at GovTech and one of the app’s lead developers. This also meant testing different models of phones in an anechoic chamber at Nanyang Polytechnic. “All this was new territory for the GovTech engineers, who are primarily software rather than hardware engineers.”
Why bother with all this work?
The app itself warns that once it is activated, the government can in fact compel users to hand over their data.
Using peer-to-peer technology allows GovTech to pre-empt users’ worries about privacy. In TraceTogether, the peer-to-peer features are not meant to evade Big Brother. Rather, they are to encourage more people to use the app, a GovTech page says, adding that, “If users are hesitant to download the app for fear of inadvertently revealing their movements, its ability to link the dots would be greatly diminished.” Another GovTech page about the app reinforces this message with FAQs debunking various myths including: “Myth #1 – the government is using TraceTogether to track or spy on every citizen’s whereabouts.” “Myth #2 – With the TraceTogether app running…anyone, including the government, can hack into my phone and extract all information in the phone.”
The app does not enable spying or hacking. But nor does it completely protect personal privacy. Unlike tools like Firechat or Bridgefy, TraceTogether requires the centralisation of users’ data in order to work. And this data is only visible to the government. The app itself warns that once it is activated, the government can in fact compel users to hand over their data. The app substitutes one set of privacy concerns (your location) for another (who you are with).
But in linking citizens to government, rather than citizens to citizens, citizen science is turned upside down. A technology designed for decentralisation has become a powerful new centralising technology of the state.
(Un)making a Community
TraceTogether has also borrowed from citizen science in another way. Since the app will only function effectively if many people download it, it was promoted in terms of collective effort and community activism: “Download TraceTogether and help those around you set it up…Get peace of mind for you and your family through community-driven contact tracing,” says a promotional video that shows how the app can allow users to play a direct role in guarding both their own safety and the safety of others. The language of “help those around you” stresses ideals of togetherness and harmony. This is exactly the language of citizen science.
But does TraceTogether really reinforce community and make us want to help each other more?
In fact, the app has the reverse effect. By pushing subtle notifications whenever it detects a nearby phone with the app installed, TraceTogether actually serves to remind the user that every member of the public is potentially someone carrying COVID-19. But, like the virus, data about other individuals remains “hidden” (encrypted) within your own phone—you cannot even access it yourself. The only way people can be “linked” is when data is uploaded via the Ministry of Health. The Ministry becomes the critical link in the chain.
Ultimately, the less citizens trust each other to do the right thing, the more they must rely on the government.
Citizen science technologies build trust by sharing information within a network of individuals. TraceTogether, on the other hand, is based on sharing information only with the government and therefore requires trust in the government, not other people. The main reason to download the app is because others in the community cannot be trusted—they cannot be trusted to stay at home if they are sick, nor to reliably report who they had “contact” with. “Even the most strenuous efforts of contact tracers can be thwarted by lapses in memory,” GovTech reminds us. In the absence of such community trust, citizens must look to the government to protect them. Rather than linking people together via a network, TraceTogether makes your phone into a sensor through which to detect an invisible enemy in the body of another individual. Ultimately, the less citizens trust each other to do the right thing, the more they must rely on the government (and technologies like TraceTogether).
The aim of citizen science tools are to increase social trust, solidarity and community. Unfortunately, TraceTogether and other similar apps, may have the opposite consequence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen other instances in which widespread surveillance efforts have led to increased levels of social suspicion. South Korea’s aggressive efforts to curb the spread of the virus involved releasing personal information and detailed accounts of the whereabouts of hundreds of patients. This “radical transparency” has led to online vilification, fake photos, salacious rumours and stigmatisation.
TraceTogether may ultimately prove very successful in aiding the work of contact tracers and halting community transmission. But in the longer term, there may be high costs to be paid in terms of increased social fragmentation and continued community distrust.
The app has the potential to produce citizens not empowered by access to science, data and knowledge, but rather individuals who remain dependent on their government and suspicious of each other.
Hallam Stevens is an historian of technology at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). He is the author of Life out of sequence: a data-driven history of bioinformatics (Chicago 2013), Biotechnology and Society: an introduction (Chicago 2016), and the co-editor of Postgenomics: Perspectives on Biology After the Genome (Duke 2015). He serves as the associate director of the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity.