Singapore updates contact tracing app to include foreign visitors

Country's COVID-19 contact tracing app has been updated to include travellers visiting Singapore and the government also is looking at issuing wearable devices to every resident to facilitate such efforts.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore has updated its contact tracing app to facilitate travellers visiting the country as it looks to reopen its borders to foreign visitors. It is also assessing the feasibility of issuing wearable devices to every resident to aid in its contact tracing efforts, but it has not specified if its use will be made mandatory. 

The Singapore government last month revealed it was developing wearable devices to help drive the adoption of contact tracing technologies and boost its efforts to contain COVID-19. It said these portable devices would address concerns about battery life and the use of Bluetooth in its contact tracing app, TraceTogether

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. 

The app, however, did not appear to work well on Apple devices as the iOS operating system would suspend Bluetooth scanning when the app was running in the background, acknowledged Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, during a parliament session Friday.  

He noted that while his team had numerous discussions regarding technical and policy issues with Apple, they were unable to identify a satisfactory solution. 

He added that the government, at least at this point in time, did not intend to make the use of TraceTogether compulsory because the app was unable to function equally well across different smartphones. To date, the app has clocked 1.6 million downloads.

Balakrishnan said: "Instead, we are developing and will soon roll out a portable wearable device that will achieve the same objective as TraceTogether, but will not depend on possession of a smartphone. If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. I believe this will be more inclusive, and it will ensure that all of us will be protected."

He did not specify, however, whether the carrying of such wearable devices would be made mandatory across the island. 

The minister did note that, despite its limitations, the TraceTogether app proved a useful tool in the country's contact tracing efforts, particularly when used alongside other data sources. He added that it was able to automatically generate a preliminary list of close contacts for quarantine, hence, cutting down the time needed to isolate these individuals and stemming the spread of COVID-19. He reiterated that technology should be an enabler, not a replacement, for human involvement in contact tracing. 

App enhancements to facilitate foreign visitors, venue entry

The TraceTogether also has been updated to include the registration of passport numbers for travellers visiting Singapore as well as barcode scans to support the country's digital check-in tool, SafeEntry. The system collects visitors' personal data, either through QR codes or barcode scans, when they enter a venue such as supermarkets and workplaces, which then can be used to facilitate contact tracing should an individual who visited a location test positive for COVID-19. 

With the app update, TraceTogether users can use the identification number barcode displayed in the app instead of their identity cards to check in or out of the SafeEntry system. SafeEntry is mandatory at certain locations and, to date, has been deployed at more than 16,000 sites island-wide.

Singapore also is easing restrictions -- put in place to curb the spread of virus -- in phases, as more businesses begin to resume operations over the next month. In addition, the government is reviewing potential "fast lane" arrangements with some countries as it looks to reopen its borders for essential overseas travel. 

For instance, it has inked an agreement with China to create a fast lane for travel between Singapore and six Chinese provinces and municipalities including Chongqing, Guangdong, and Shanghai. 

Business or official travellers sponsored by government agencies also will be able to submit applications for inbound travel to Singapore from June 8. Applications for company-sponsored travellers can be submitted at a later date. 

Also with the latest update of TraceTogether, the contact tracing app now supports three other languages: Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. 

To further ease concerns about data privacy, Balakrishnan said during his parliament speech that data collected for the purpose of contact tracing would be stored in the user's own smartphone and accessed by the Health Ministry only if the individual tested positive for COVID-19.  

"There are safeguards, including encryption, in place to protect this from malicious hackers," the minister said. "Data that is older than 25 days will be automatically deleted from your phone. If the close contact data is required for contact tracing, only a small group of authorised officers in the Ministry of Healthy will have access to it. All the public sector data protection rules will also apply."

"Now that we have more people moving about, going to work, there will be more occasions when more people will have more close interactions with each other. Therefore, the collection and use of this data for contact tracing becomes even more essential," he said. "It will speed up the isolation of close contacts and reduce the risk of them spreading COVID-19."


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