Singapore looks to ease privacy fears with 'no internet' wearable device

Slated to be ready for rollout later this month, wearable devices the country is developing for COVID-19 contact tracing will not have GPS, internet, or cellular connectivity, so data can only be extracted when the device is physically handed over to the Health Ministry.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The Singapore government says the wearable device it is developing for COVID-19 contact tracing will not have GPS, internet, or cellular connectivity, so data it collects can only be extracted when it is physically handed over to a health official. These details are being offered up as the government looks to ease concerns about data privacy and drive the adoption of digital tools that can help speed up contact tracing. 

It had first mooted the deployment of a wearable device last month as a way to plug existing technical issues with its contact tracing app, TraceTogether, which was introduced in April. The app did not work well on Apple devices and was a significant drain on battery life -- a feature that the government attributed to an iOS feature and one that could not be properly addressed even by tweaking the app's design. 

The government had looked to various digital tools, including SafeEntry, to improve contact tracing and lessen the need to depend on human memory to identify potential contacts. 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. SafeEntry has been deployed at more than 16,000 sites island-wide and is mandatory at certain locations across the island.

Speaking to reporters via video conferencing on Monday, Singapore's Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, further stressed the importance of swift contact tracing to stem the spread of the coronavirus. This, he said, would ensure early treatment and isolation so transmissions could be better contained. 

Balakrishnan noted that the use of digital tools had slashed the time needed to map a patient's contact circle and issue quarantine orders from two to three days, to less than a day. The government's ability to continue to do so swiftly required more people to come onboard and use these tools, specifically, its TraceTogether app. 

The minister added that higher adoption was essential for these tools to work effectively, especially as Singapore begins to ease its restrictions and reopen businesses.

Noting that there have been almost 1.8 million downloads of TraceTogether, or about 25% of the local population, he said this number still was insufficient. Barriers to adoption, such as the lack of smartphone ownership, must be resolved so this number could grow more significantly, he said. 

This is what has prompted the development of wearable devices, which Balakrishnan coined TraceTogether Token. It is expected to be ready for rollout later this month. The minister said the device would be issued to every resident across the island, though, there were no plans -- as yet -- to make its use mandatory. 

Its potential deployment, however, triggered a public outcry amongst individuals concerned about their privacy and indignant about being tagged. An online petition urging the public to reject its use has, to date, chalked up almost 36,000 signatures.

Balakrishnan dismissed suggestions the government was using the device to monitor an individual's movement. "It is not a tracking device. it's not an electronic tag as some internet commentaries had fretted about," he said. 

"In particular, there's no GPS chip on the device. There isn't even any internet or mobile telephony connectivity," the minister noted. "Without a GPS chip, the device cannot track the location or movement of individuals. And because there's no internet connectivity, there's no possibility of data being uploaded without the participation or consent of the user."

He added that the data on the smartphone as well as token captured only Bluetooth proximity data. This information would be encrypted and stored up to 25 days, after which it would be automatically deleted. The information would be uploaded to the Health Ministry only when an individual tested positive for COVID-19 and this could be carried out only by physically handing over the wearable device to the ministry, he said.

"And only a very limited, restricted team of contact tracers would have access to the data in order to reconstruct the activity map [of the COVID-19 patient]," Balakrishnan said. "So there isn't one big, giant centralised database. The data is decentralised and encrypted on phones and devices, and only uploaded when [someone tests] positive. So, again, there's no electronic tagging, no geolocation tracking."

He added that all public sector data protection rules would apply to the data held by the Health Ministry, including abiding by the recommendations of the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee.

According to the minister, the first batch of TraceTogether Tokens likely would be delivered in the latter half of this month and rolled out progressively. The initial focus would be on individuals who did not have smartphones or devices that could function well enough to support TraceTogether, he said. 

On whether the wearable device would be made mandatory, Balakrishnan said the priority for now was to encourage voluntary participation by highlighting the benefits of its use. But he did not rule out the possibility should the outbreak worsen and if the Health Ministry determined there was no other option. "This is something we cannot predict at this point in time," he said.


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