Singapore looking at wearable devices to support COVID-19 contact tracing

To address concerns about battery life and the use of Bluetooth in its contact tracing app, the Singapore government is now developing wearable devices, tied to a lanyard, to help drive the adoption rate of such technologies in the country.

To address concerns about battery life and the use of Bluetooth in its contact tracing app, Singapore currently is looking to develop wearable devices to help drive the adoption of such technologies and boost its efforts to contain COVID-19. It currently has no plans, for now at least, to make the use of its contact tracing app mandatory. 

Introduced in March, the TraceTogether 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 identifies participating TraceTogether users who are within 2 metres of each other for more than 30 minutes. The data is then captured, encrypted, and stored locally on the user's phone for 21 days, which spans the incubation period of the virus. 

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To date, the contact tracing app has been downloaded some 1.5 million time, which roughly equates to 20-25% of Singapore's population of 5.5 million, said Singapore's Foreign Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office, Vivian Balakrishnan, in an interview with Sky News Australia

"It is still a voluntary exercise and I would try to keep it for as long as possible on that basis," Balakrishnan said. "Contact tracing is an essential part of epidemic management, but contact tracing remains, at the heart of it, a human endeavour. In dealing with human beings, when a diagnosis is made, I do not believe a smart app should tell you the diagnosis... the human being remains at the centre of this entire process."

He noted that both countries used Bluetooth-enabled proximity data, which had led to feedback about the use of Bluetooth and the contact tracing app depleting the battery life of the smartphone. 

"So, the other thing we are working on now to supplement this is to develop wearable devices -- a little device on the end of a lanyard -- which would be working on [its own] battery and will not drain your [smartphone's] battery life, and you would just carry with you as you go around your daily activities. We believe that a combination of phones plus these wearable devices will increase the participation rate considerably," said the Singapore minister. 

Asked if he expected a higher adoption rate for the wearable devices or if adoption was hindered by privacy concerns, he pointed to user issues as well as having a device that people could more easily leave in their bags or wear. This, he added, would help drive the participation rate. "But again, I want to come back to my first point that it is not just about technology. You need to make sure that the human remains at the centre of it all. Maintaining trust, respecting privacy, and getting voluntary participation is absolutely essential," said Balakrishnan.

He noted that making TraceTogether open source also helped ensure everyone knew what was going on and could test it to ensure there were no backdoors. 

On trade relations between Singapore and Australia, Balakrishnan said the coronavirus pandemic had underscored the need to do more in the digital space and establish common standards and interoperability. The Digital Economy Agreement between the two countries, specifically, built on efforts that were essential and further accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Balakrishnan said: "I would expect to see far more in terms of digital trade and services being able to cross borders, including fintech. The key point is for us to be able to interoperate, even as we maintain open digital borders."

Singapore also uses a digital check-in system to boost its contact tracing efforts and has made this mandatory at certain locations across the island. Called SafeEntry, the digital check-in system uses QR codes -- displayed at the entry and exit points of a venue -- to collect data that can be used to facilitate contact tracing should an individual who visited the location test positive for COVID-19. The check-in system has been deployed at more than 16,000 sites island-wide. 

Countries such as Hong Kong and South Korea also are using digital wristbands to track the movements of people under quarantine.

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