Your smartphone could soon be saving a record of everyone you come in close contact with - a Big Brother-ish move in the higher cause of helping to stamp out Covid-19.
The New Zealand Government is actively accessing Singapore's TraceTogether tracking tool, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed at her Thursday briefing, adding that she was due to speak to her counterpart in the city state, Lee Hsien Loong, that evening to get more information.
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Ardern has been upfront about the fact that she sees an app as only one part of the contact-tracing process. No app compared to the interrogation which a human was able to do, she said. And she also noted that the Ministry of Health has a basic app under way that will begin with collecting contact information only.
For people entering the country, the police have adapted an existing search and rescue app created by NZ's Mobile Locate for an opt-in, text and website-based system to confirm a person's location. And Statistics NZ and the police have already drawn on Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees' ability to track customer movements for population tracking and emergency location programmes worked on by Stats NZ's Data Ventures unit and Wellington-based Datacom.
But it seems for fine-grained contact-tracing, the Singapore Government's TraceTogether programme could likely be part of the mix.
Various local and multinational contenders are lining up to tout their tracing apps to our government. Even Google and Apple are pitching in, in a rare alliance that they say will soon produce a Bluetooth track tool. But Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield have both said there's no time to waste "re-inventing the wheel."
The fact TraceTogether is already up and running for mass Covid-19 monitoring could give it the inside edge. Germany's Government - which is famed for its wariness of privacy intrusion - is reportedly close to adopting the Singapore app, which could help get it over the line here as Ardern and Bloomfield look for tools to quickly ease us into Level 3 or Level 2 life, or help clear the way for regional lockdowns.
So how does TraceTogether work, and what's it like living under it?
Developed by a Government agency, GovTech (already responsible for an array of "smart nation" iniatives), TraceTogether utilises Bluetooth - the wireless technology in every smartphone, which is most commonly used for connecting to cordless earbuds.
When TraceTogether senses you're within 10m of another TraceTogether app, your phones swap tokens (records) of the fact the pair of you passed within close proximity.
If someone you've been near subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, then TraceTogether will inform you, and everyone who's been near them (at least, if and when they've been using the app).
The data exchanged between phones is encrypted and anonymised. You might get an alert that you were in close contact to a person with Covid-19, but their identity won't be revealed.
Here's GovTech's official explainer:
Wellington-based telecommunications consultant Jonathan Brewer, who ordinarily divides his time between NZ and Singapore, is spending his lockdown in the city state.
NZ tech industry insiders will now Brewer isn't one to mince words when he sees product deficiencies, but he's broadly positive about TraceTogether, and the privacy protocols around it
"I run the app for my own protection - I care a lot more about being notified of exposure than I do trading away my privacy for a couple of months," Brewer tells the Herald.
"I trust Singapore's Government to keep my location data safe - as I think most Singaporeans do - because they're extremely competent, transparent, communicative, and fair."
Still, the system is not perfect. The voluntary nature of the programme, and the fact some people still have "feature" or dumbphones without Bluetooth, mean although uptake has been brisk by the appworld's usual standards, TraceTogether is still not ubiquitous. TechGov recently said some 1 million or about one in six Singaporeans had installed the app.
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And those with it installed have got to remember to have Bluetooth switched on (it typically is by default, though many phones also switch it off automatically as a power-saving measure when the battery gets low), and they have to start TraceTogether every time they start their phone, too (it works best in the foreground in iOS. Apple and Google say their forthcoming effort will work in the background, too).
And then there's the fact that ideally TraceTogether would only record those who came within 2m of you, but as Ardern mentioned on Thursday (indicating she's already been schooling up), Bluetooth isn't always super-accurate.
Bluetooth has gone through many versions, and different models of phones have different Bluetooth headsets.
"To use a metaphor, some people speak with booming voices and others have very soft voices," GovTech senior director Jason Bay said as TraceTogether was launched.
"If you are trying to estimate the distance based on volume, you will have to calibrate the microphone you use for each speaker – loud or soft. One of the hardest parts of this project was characterising and calibrating across different models of phones."
Brewer says, "From a technical standpoint I know there are more accurate ways of contact tracing. That doesn't bug me. And I know uptake isn't great. There are a lot of older Singaporeans and migrant workers still using feature phones that don't support the app. But I'm still doing it because it helps the community and doesn't cost me a thing."
TraceTogether was initially seen as a key element of Singapore's partial lockdown, which allowed large parts of the city state's economy to remain open while infection rates remained remarkably low - along with other measures such as swift moves to impose border controls.
A spike in the past seven days has under-cut that narrative to an extent, and lead to a tighter lockdown. Brewer says since Tuesday he can no longer go to the pool or gym, as recreational facilities joined bars and restaurants on the no-go list.
Still, Singapore is ahead of most countries, and has Covid-19 stats in a similar ballpark to NZ (as of Sunday morning, the city state had eight deaths and 943 active cases to NZ's four deaths and 886 active cases).
NZ, like Singapore has, so far, gone with a light-handed tracking regime - certainly compared to China, where a colour-coded smartphone app has been deployed en masse, with a "green" rating needed to access many public services.
But NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has noted that if push-comes-to-shove, then police and the Department of Health could can public safety exceptions from the Privacy Act. Under exceptional circumstances, people's phones can, legally, be traced without their permission.
However, Edwards adds the key provisos that such measures should be transparent and time-limited.