No plan currently for mandatory use of wearable devices for COVID-19 contact tracing: Balakrishnan

Wong Casandra
·Senior Reporter
·5-min read

SINGAPORE — The government is not planning to make it mandatory for residents in Singapore to use the proposed wearable devices for contact tracing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking at a virtual conference helmed by the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce on Monday (8 June), Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office initiative, said that the use of the devices should be based on a “spirit of trust, openness, and compassion” as well as “mutual responsibility”.

“When you're controlling a pandemic like this, there are many aspects of it you cannot legislate. You can have rules, you can pass laws, you can enforce it. The majority will comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law. And unfortunately, a minority sometimes will try to find loopholes.”

“I'm going to do my best to try to push the participation rates up without having to go down the mandatory route,” he stressed.

However, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister, noted, “Whether or not circumstances will ever worsen to the point where the MOH (Ministry of Health) may say we have no choice, that is something which we cannot predict at this point in time.”

The first batch of devices will likely be rolled out progressively from the latter half of June via similar channels that were activated for the distribution of masks, such as community centres, said Dr Balakrishnan.

To date, some 25 per cent of Singapore’s population – almost 1.8 million people – have “voluntarily” downloaded and activated the TraceTogether mobile app, he added.

The figures are “good, but not good enough” and authorities need to raise them significantly, Dr Balakrishnan said, adding that the rate should ideally rise to above 75 per cent.

One such barrier to greater participation, he explained, is not everyone in Singapore has a smartphone or one that works effectively enough to supply the necessary data to authorities. And that is why authorities say there is a need to introduce a device that functions like the app, and “inter-operates” with the app, he added.

Dr Balakrishnan also spoke at length on how the digital trail of data, obtained from TraceTogether mobile app and SafeEntry, had drastically cut down the time required for authorities to contact an infected patient as well as trace his or her activities.

“It used to take us about two to three days of intensive laborious work to re-construct an activity map for each patient,” he said.

“It now takes us less than a day, from the identification of a patient to issuing the necessary quarantine orders to that person's contacts. This reduction from two or three days to less than a day makes a crucial difference. And it is even more important now that we are opening up.”

Digital trail: No GPS, internet capabilities on device

During the press conference, Dr Balakrishnan also stressed that the device is not for tracking one’s whereabouts as it does not have a Global Positioning System (GPS) chip – which can determine one’s exact location via satellite signals – or the capability to connect to the Internet.

“It is not an electronic tag, as some internet commenters have fretted about,” he added. “(And) because there is no internet connectivity, there is no possibility of data being uploaded without the participation and consent of the user.”

The encrypted Bluetooth proximity data “never leaves” the phone or the upcoming device and is stored for up to 25 days before being automatically deleted, said Dr Balakrishnan, who dismissed the notion of the information existing in a “giant, centralised database”.

“The only time the data leaves the phone or the device is in the unlikely event that you are diagnosed with COVID-19. Then, and only then, is the data uploaded to the MOH. And in the case of the device, you actually need physical possession of the device in order to hand over the data to MOH.”

Even in that scenario, the data is only privy to a “very limited, restricted team of contact tracers”, said Dr Balakrishnan. “The data stored in TraceTogether is encrypted and can only be unlocked by the MOH. Therefore, even if the data is extracted by unauthorised means, it will not be readable.”

Also at the conference, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, the taskforce co-chair, stressed that digital data is not meant to be used to detect offences and breaches of rules, but rather for effective contact tracing.

"I can't imagine how a Bluetooth device can (for instance) detect somebody not wearing a mask, to begin with. There is no intention to use a TraceTogether app, or TraceTogether token, as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules," Wong said.

"The app and the device, plus SafeEntry combined, are meant to provide us with information in a timely manner so that we can do speedy, fast, and effective contact tracing."

Concerns pertaining to the invasion of data privacy were raised following Dr Balakrishnan’s announcement in Parliament last Friday that the government was exploring the use of such devices for contact tracing and may roll them out to everyone in Singapore soon.

An online petition condemning its implementation had garnered some 35,000 signatories as of Monday night, since its creation on the same day of his announcement. The creator of the petition had called it “blatant infringements upon (the) rights to privacy, personal space, and freedom of movement”.

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