Singapore introduces contact tracing app to slow coronavirus spread

Government launches TraceTogether mobile app that taps Bluetooth signals to capture data of other participating devices in close proximity, enabling the encrypted information to be extracted to facilitate contact tracing should users contract the coronavirus.

Singapore has developed a new mobile app that can facilitate contact tracing should its users contract the coronavirus. Called TraceTogether, the app taps Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices in close proximity to allow them to identify those who have been in close contact when needed. 

The app is able to estimate the distance between TraceTogether smartphones as well as the duration of such interactions. It identifies participating TraceTogether users who are within 2 metres of each other for more than 30 minutes. The data then is captured, encrypted, and stored locally on the user's phone for 21 days, which spans the incubation period of the virus. 

When needed in contact tracing, users will have to authorise the uploading of their TraceTogether data to Singapore's Ministry of Health, which will then assess the information and retrieve the mobile numbers of close contacts within that period of time. 

Developed by Government Technology Agency (GovTech), alongside the health ministry, the app was designed to help speed up the contact tracing process and stem the spread of COVID-19, the government IT office said. 

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GovTech said existing processes depend heavily on the memory of patients, who might not be able to remember all close contacts or have the contact details and information of these individuals. 

The mobile app can plug the gaps and more quickly identify potential carriers, who then can monitor their health and take the necessary action sooner. Early detection is crucial in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus, according to the government agency.

To safeguard personal privacy, it added that users would have to provide consent during the initial setup of the app to participate in TraceTogether and agree to have their mobile number and captured data used for contact tracing. 

GovTech said only the user's mobile phone is required during the installation, and no other data such as name, location, contact list, or address book would be collected. Data logs are stored locally on the mobile phone and contain only cryptographically generated temporary IDs. 

The data logs would be extracted only when needed by the authorities for contact tracing, it said. Refusal to provide such data when requested might result in individuals being prosecuted under the country's Infectious Diseases Act.

The government agency said the app used 1MB of data a day and would not significantly drain the battery of a mobile device, which already had Bluetooth enabled.

TraceTogether is available for download via the Google Play and Apple app stores. 

Singapore this week rolled out more stringent distancing measures as part of its efforts to contain COVID-19, including requiring event operators and businesses such as restaurants and cinemas to carry out measures to ensure a 1-metre separation between customers. 

Several government agencies, including the Singapore Tourism Board, have listed safe distancing measures establishments that must be implemented. Events and gatherings including religious gatherings, for example, of more than 250 participants are required to be suspended.

Retailers and food and beverage operators, in particular, have to comply with new distancing measures such as maintaining a 1-metre separation between customers. To meet these new requirements, some establishments have implemented floor markers to separate customers waiting in queues, while some eateries have marked out seats that should not be occupied to maintain the distance of separation. 

The agency said businesses that refused to comply would be reported to the relevant regulatory bodies "for appropriate action" and warned that tourism stakeholders that did not implement safe distancing measures might not be eligible for government grants or loan assistance. 

Noting that such measures would be enforced in some instances, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a media briefing Friday: "It is not an option, it is not advisory, it is mandatory ... We do not want to see crowded venues, we do not want to see packed event halls. We should see more work from home, more takeaways."

Singapore recently saw a significant climb in new daily COVID-19 cases, driven largely by imported cases as those studying or working broad returned from other countries including the US, Europe, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. As of March 20, it recorded 190 imported cases and identified 7,065 close contacts, of whom 2,437 are currently in quarantine. Another 4,628 have already completed their quarantine orders. 

It has 252 active cases in hospitals as of Saturday, with Singapore experiencing its first two deaths from the virus, and 131 patients have fully recovered and been discharged from hospital. 

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