COVID-19: Wearable contact tracing device may be given to everyone in Singapore

Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore on March 20, 2020. - The mobile app using Bluetooth technology developed by GovTech in collaboration with the Ministry of Health informs user who had close contacts to confirmed coronavirus cases was launched in Singapore on 20. (Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP) (Photo by CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images)
Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's contact-tracing smartphone app called TraceTogether. (Photo by CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE – The government is exploring the use of wearable devices for contact tracing and may roll them out soon to everyone in Singapore.

Speaking in Parliament on Friday (5 June), Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, did not specify if the devices will have similar features as the TraceTogether app.

But Dr Balakrishnan said the wearable devices will achieve the same objective as TraceTogether. “If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. I believe this will be more inclusive, and it will ensure that all of us will be protected.”

He was responding to a query by Sembawang GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Vikram Nair who had asked if the downloading and activation of the TraceTogether app should be made mandatory for everyone in Singapore who possesses a mobile phone.

Dr Balakrishnan said that the government has not reached a “satisfactory solution” on the use of the app with Apple, the maker of the popular iPhones.

“The app does not appear to work as well on iOS or Apple devices as the iOS operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background. We’ve had repeated discussions both at the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution,” Dr Balakrishnan said.

“Because TraceTogether doesn’t work equally well across all smartphones, we have decided therefore at this time not to mandate the compulsory use of TraceTogether.”

A total of 1.5 million users have voluntarily downloaded the TraceTogether app on their smartphones.

Confidentiality of TraceTogether data

In response to a question by MP Gan Thiam Poh of Ang Mo Kio GRC, Dr Balakrishnan said the government currently does not “have the breakdown of downloads by gender or age as such data is not currently collected”.

Dr Balakrishnan also reiterated in Parliament his written reply, issued on Thursday, to MP Murali Pillai’s (Bukit Batok SMC) question on the steps taken by the government to ensure that personal data of persons collated through apps such as TraceTogether will be protected.

“The data is stored only on your own phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH (Ministry of Health) only if the individual tests positive for COVID-19. This data is only used for contact tracing. There are safeguards, including encryption, in place to protect this from malicious hackers.

“The data that is older than 25 days will be automatically deleted from your phone. If the close contact data is required for contact tracing, only a small group of authorised officers in MOH will have access to it. All the public sector data protection rules will also apply.”

Dr Balakrishan emphasised that quick and accurate contact tracing is necessary. This, he said, is more essential now that Singapore is progressively moving out of the circuit breaker.

“If you think about it, if everyone is at home, the need for contact trading is minimal. Now that we have more people moving about, going to work, there will be more occasions where more people will have more close interactions with each other. tracing becomes more essential.”

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