All I want for Christmas is... my TraceTogether token
What the preference of the token over the app says about trust and governance in the age of tech
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Last week, I rang up the community centre near my home to ask if distribution of the TraceTogether token had started. To my disappointment, it hadn’t. “Try again around Christmas,” the friendly lady on the phone said.
The token is one of two options to take part in the digital contact tracing initiative developed by GovTech to keep Covid-19 at bay. And looks like we won’t be needing 70 per cent of the population to be using TraceTogether in order for Phase 3 to start after all. With current usage at about 60 per cent, my guess is that there’s a sizeable number of people who will use the token but have not been able to get their hands on it, yet are unwilling to download and use the app. Why is this so?
First, let’s acknowledge some steps that the TraceTogether team has done to allay privacy concerns.
An easy-to-read privacy statement without the usual legalese and contrived sentences.
Open sourcing the code and getting buy-in from individuals with software engineering experience.
Using Telegram to solicit feedback and answer queries and doubts.
Why still not good enough?
Some of the wariness could just be down to heightened awareness among the general public about the data privacy concerns regarding smartphone apps in general, particularly with location information. The app, as it exists today, does not collect GPS locations. But apps can be updated relatively easily to introduce new functions (and not all users will religiously examine every new iteration). To be clear, there are no indications that the government will do so, but even the possibility is enough to turn off some folks.
On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as easy to modify the token — once collected by a user — in the same way. It’s also hard to sneak a GPS tracker into the token without seriously compromising its battery life. And I should add that experts and open-source advocates were given the chance to take apart the token and came away satisfied that it safeguards privacy.
Trust is “whole-of-government”
Of course, this line of thinking already hints at a deeper mistrust at play. It’s a mistrust that GovTech is not able to fix alone, despite its best efforts. Trust in the authorities doesn’t come piecemeal; it forms in a — to put it in civil service parlance — “whole-of-government” manner. When the water supply to your home is disrupted and the PUB turns up at your doorstep within hours to deliver drinking water and explain the situation, it’s not just that single agency but the entire government that burnishes its reputation for efficiency.
But the opposite is equally true when the shoe is on the other foot. When a law is passed ostensibly to protect people against online harassment but a ministry later tries to invoke it against an individual, it’s the entire government that comes across as willing to stretch the tools at its disposal beyond their original intentions.
The application of law and tech may be vastly different matters, but to the public, it boils down to “whole-of-government”.
Mind the gap
Judging from the rush to collect the tokens and online comments from people lamenting that they still haven’t gotten theirs, TraceTogether’s usage will truly take off only when token distribution is completed.
This trust gap is something the authorities have to recognise and address.
It’s easy to say there’s always a minority that cannot be won over and write them off as tin foil hatters who will never bend to reason. After all, you can get away with such thinking most of the time when you need just a simple majority to go along with you. TraceTogether exposes the limitations of this mindset and I’m certain it won’t be the last time the trust gap hampers the roll-out of policy.
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