As several countries mull how best to utilize contact-tracing technology, Singapore is planning to issue virus-tracking wearables to each of its 5.7 million residents.
The proposed device isn’t a big-name fitness tracker or smartwatch you might have heard of. Reuters reports Singapore’s government is testing small devices that “can be worn on the end of a lanyard or carried in a small handbag.” Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the city-state’s Smart Nation initiative, told Singapore’s Parliament that the device would not be mandatory and that it doesn’t depend on a smartphone to operate. Accent Advanced Systems, Kerlink, Microshare Inc., and TRACEsafe Technologies Inc. are among the reported vendors pitching their devices, according to Reuters.
Singapore’s decision to develop its own portable wearable contact-tracing device is noteworthy for several reasons. First off, the city-state has recorded one of the highest numbers of cases of covid-19 in Southeast Asia. In late April, the number of cases suddenly doubled, despite the fact Singapore had been fastidious early on with contact tracing and other measures to contain the virus. While Lichtenstein and Bahrain have both implemented wearables as part of their covid-19 responses, both have much smaller populations than Singapore. If most of its estimated 5.7 million residents enrolled, Singapore’s wearable program could potentially be the largest covid-19 contact-tracing effort in the world. That is a lot of data.
Which brings us to the second reason why Singapore’s program is important: privacy. While addressing Parliament, Balakrishnan indicated that one of the reasons Singapore is going through all this trouble is that it finds contact-tracing apps to be limited. The city-state’s TraceTogether app launched in March and has since been downloaded by approximately 20 percent of the population. However, Balakrishnan said the government decided not to make the app mandatory as it doesn’t work “equally well” across different smartphone operating systems.
This is what you could call the Singapore government throwing shade at Apple and Google’s joint contact-tracing tech. According to ChannelNewsAsia, Singapore has been unable to reach an agreement with Apple at both the “technical and policy level.” Specifically, the issue at hand is how iOS does not allow Bluetooth scanning when an app is running in the background.
Singapore’s app has raised privacy concerns as it includes the ability to register a citizen’s individual National Registration Identity Card number and mobile number in a bid to more quickly identify close contacts of people who test positive for covid-19. Balakrishnan insisted in his testimony that all data is confidential, as it’s stored locally on the phone and can only be accessed by government officials when a person tests positive. He added that all data is deleted after 25 days.
That said, using an individual’s NRIC number in a contact-tracing app is undoubtedly a privacy red flag. The TraceTogether app is operated on a voluntary basis, but how these apps are implemented by governments could set a dangerous precedent. Those concerns definitely transfer over to whatever wearable device Singapore creates. Right now, we have no idea if it will include GPS or LTE connectivity‚ as the government indicated the wearable would not be reliant on phones, or operate solely on Bluetooth. Without the proper precautions, Singapore could easily create a system that could track the whereabouts of its entire population—and citizens would have to trust that it wouldn’t be used for a more dubious purpose later.