Singapore, Australia turn to tracking apps to combat COVID-19

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok Desk, May 4 (efe-epa).- As some European authorities study the use of COVID-19 tracking applications, countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Australia have already opted for these new technologies amid privacy concerns.

There are two main tracking system models – those that use GPS location and centralized databases, such as those used in China and South Korea, and which is more invasive, and those using Bluetooth technology, which Singapore and Australia are using.

The key to defending privacy, according to experts, is that the system be decentralized.

Owing to its experience with SARS, a type of coronavirus, in 2003 Singapore was among the first countries to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and the first to launch a Bluetooth-based tracking app on Mar. 20.

The application, called TraceTogether, automatically exchanges Bluetooth signals between phones of users who are within a 2-meter (7 feet) radius of each other.

If a user develops COVID-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, they can share their TraceTogether data with the authorities, and the system can then alert people who came into contact with the infected and thereby break the chain of infection.

In an explanatory video, TraceTogether ensures that the process requires user authorization and the application does not collect geolocation data.

However, only 1.1 million people have downloaded the app – about one-fifth of the population – when the figure has to reach at least 60 percent to be effective. In addition, iPhone users have been facing technical issues with the app.

As well as using these new technologies, Singapore, China, South Korea and Taiwan, where the novel coronavirus has been more or less controlled, employ hundreds or even thousands of people to track and monitor potential outbreaks.

This mobilization of human resources can create challenges in countries with hundreds of thousands of infections such as Spain, Italy and the United States.

“If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, ‘no,’” wrote Jason Bay, a senior director at Singapore’s technology agency, creator of TraceTogether, on his blog in mid-April.

In China, residents must download an app which, using a logarithm that includes places visited, issues a green code for those who have freedom of movement and yellow or red for those for whom quarantine is mandatory.

Furthermore, population movements are strictly monitored by the country’s authorities, where privacy and personal information are not exempt from state scrutiny.

COVID-19 patients in Taiwan are monitored through their mobiles, which send signals to let authorities know if they are flouting quarantine guidelines, which is punishable with fines.

In South Korea, authorities use GPS and credit card payment data and even information from surveillance cameras to create a map of the places visited by a COVID-19 patient.

The map can be viewed on the internet and the tracking system also sends alert messages to the entire population.

As countries ease lockdown restrictions, governments are testing technological solutions to track potential infections and curb the spread of the virus.

Vietnam and Australia are some of the countries that have launched apps based on the Singapore model, while Spain is part of the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing group that is developing an app using Bluetooth technology.

Tech giants Google and Apple, owners of the operating systems for Android mobiles and iPhones, have relied on the European system to jointly develop their own tracking application.

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