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Coronavirus: Why Singapore turned to wearable contact-tracing tech

BBC Technology 04 Jul 2020 11:01
By Saira Asher BBC News, Singapore
Composite of TraceTogether Token hardwareImage copyright Andrew Huang

Singapore's TraceTogether Tokens are the latest effort to tackle Covid-19 with tech. But they have also reignited a privacy debate.

The wearable devices complement the island's existing contact-tracing app, to identify people who might have been infected by those who have tested positive for the virus.

All users have to do is carry one, and the battery lasts up to nine months without needing a recharge - something one expert said had "stunned" him.

The government agency which developed the devices acknowledges that the Tokens - and technology in general - aren't "a silver bullet", but should augment human contact-tracers' efforts.

The first to receive the devices are thousands of vulnerable elderly people who don't own smartphones.

To do so, they had to provide their national ID and phone numbers - TraceTogether app users recently had to start doing likewise.

Human contact-tracers will then use the logs to identify and advise others who might have been infected.

He was one of four experts invited to inspect one of the devices before they launched. The group was shown all its components but were not allowed to turn it on.

App aid

The local authorities say 2.1 million people have downloaded the software, representing about 35% of the population.

The government says the app helped it quarantine some people more quickly than would have otherwise been possible.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

Automated contact-tracing can in theory be hugely effective, but only if a large percentage of a population is involved.

Privacy concerns

Wilson Low started an online petition calling for it to be ditched. Almost 54,000 people have signed.

"All that is stopping the Singapore government from becoming a surveillance state is the advent and mandating the compulsory usage of such a wearable device," the petition stated.

Ministers point out the devices don't log GPS location data or connect to mobile networks, so can't be used for surveillance of a person's movements.

But he adds that the scheme is still less privacy-centric than a model promoted by Apple and Google, which is being widely adopted elsewhere.

Image copyright Silver Generation Office (SGO)

Dr Michael Veale, a digital rights expert at University College London, warns of the potential for mission creep.

"All you have to do is install physical infrastructure in the world and the data that is collecting can be mapped back to Singapore ID numbers," he explains.

But the official in charge of the agency responsible for TraceTogether plays down such concerns.

He adds that he hopes the public recognises that the health authorities need this data to protect them and their loved ones.

This was in part why the UK government initially resisted adopting the tech giants' initiative until its own effort to work around Apple's Bluetooth restrictions failed to pass muster.

"[With more data], you are able to make policy decisions which very carefully tie restraints or obligations only to high-risk activities. Otherwise you're left with much blunter tools," comments privacy expert Roland Turner, another member of the group invited by Singapore to inspect its hardware.

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