Singapore officially deactivates contact tracing system, to 'refurbish' wearables

Once used to facilitate a murder investigation, data collected from Singapore's COVID-19 contact tracing platform has been deleted and the Bluetooth-powered wearables used to detect proximity will be "refurbished and recycled" for future use when needed.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore is officially turning off its COVID-19 contact tracing system amidst plans to further ease travel restrictions, as the country exits the "acute phase" of the pandemic. 

Plans also are in place to retrieve millions of Bluetooth-enabled wearables, distributed nationwide to detect and monitor user proximity, so these can be "refurbished and recycled" for future use when needed. 

Singapore's Health Ministry said Thursday that the government had been progressively rolling back the country's TraceTogether and SafeEntry platforms over the past months, as the global pandemic situation stabilised. 

Introduced in March 2020, the TraceTogether app tapped Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices in close proximity, allowing them to identify those who had been in close contact when needed. Data would be captured, encrypted, and stored locally on the user's phone for 21 days and, when needed in contact tracing, uploaded to the Health Ministry for review.

SafeEntry was used as a digital check-in system, gathering data to facilitate contact tracing of individuals and the locations they visited when they tested positive for COVID-19. QR codes were displayed at the entry and exit points of venues, such as supermarkets and shopping malls, which visitors must scan and input their name, national identification number, and mobile number. 

With Singapore no longer requiring infected individuals to submit TraceTogether and SafeEntry details, the Health Ministry said all identifiable data collected via the two platforms had been wiped from its servers and databases. 

However, TraceTogether data related to a murder investigation in May 2020 would be retained indefinitely, the ministry said. It noted that this was needed in serious cases where legal applications might be made to challenge convictions or sentences years after the case had concluded, and local law enforcement might need to disclose the data.

And while Singapore is readying to exit the acute phase of the pandemic, moving its current DORSCON level from yellow to green from February 13, the country's contact tracing infrastructure must be ready for reactivation when needed in future should a new variant emerged, the Health Ministry said. 

"For this purpose, registration details such as name, business UEN (Unique Entity Number), and mobile number will be retained in the system, to minimise the steps taken by individuals and companies to set up and re-register for TraceTogether and SafeEntry, should it be needed," it noted. 

It added that residents and businesses can uninstall their TraceTogether and SafeEntry apps, though, these still will be available on Apple's App Store, Google Play Store, and Huawei AppGallery, for future activation if needed. 

The public can return their TraceTogether wearables between February 13 and March 12 via 108 community centres located across the island. These will be refurbished and recycled for distribution when needed in future, should contact tracing be reactivated, according to the Health Ministry. 

At its peak, TraceTogether was used by more than 90% of the local population, but a public outcry erupted when it was revealed the police could access the contact tracing data for criminal investigations, contradicting previous assertions this information would only be used when the individual tested positive for the coronavirus. 

It prompted the government to pass the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, detailing the scope of local law enforcement's access to contact tracing data. Under the Bill, public sector agencies including the Police can no longer collect and access such data once the TraceTogether and SafeEntry systems are deactivated, with the exception the data is used in criminal investigations and court proceedings. 

Along with its move to DORSCON Green from February 13, Singapore will no longer require non-fully vaccinated travellers to show proof of a negative pre-departure test. All travellers, however, still need to submit a health declaration via the digital SG Arrival Card upon entering the country.


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