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Singapore planning wearables to track Covid-19 transmission

Image credit: DT

The government of Singapore is hoping to distribute coronavirus contact-tracing devices to all of its residents, following limited take-up of its contact tracing app.

Singapore reported its first Covid-19 case in late January and now has the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.

The government quickly implemented contact tracing – in which the contacts of people with coronavirus are tracked down and advised to take action, such as going into self-isolation – including the launch of its 'TraceTogether' app. This uses Bluetooth signals to build up a record of recent contacts, who can be automatically notified if they may have been exposed to the virus. When an individual reports that they have Covid-19, their data is uploaded to a central server.

The app has encountered serious problems running on iOS devices due to Bluetooth scanning being suspended when an app runs in the background. However, the Singaporean government has so far declined to adopt Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API for public health authorities. This (free) toolkit enables Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps to run smoothly in the background whilst also ensuring privacy protections for users, by decentralising the data storage and processing and blocking any location tracking.

Although only a fifth of the Singaporean population has downloaded TraceTogether, the government has declined to make it mandatory on account of the difficulties experienced by iOS users running the app.

Instead, the government is pursuing plans to distribute wearable contact-tracing hardware to its 5.7 million residents. These devices may be attached to a lanyard, worn on the wrist, or carried in a pocket or bag. They will “achieve the same objectives” as the TraceTogether app, but without the need for a compatible smartphone.

The Minister responsible for the 'Smart nation' initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan, told lawmakers: “If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. I believe this will be more inclusive [than the app] and it will ensure that all of us will be protected.”

The government has not specified whether carrying the device will be mandatory.

Dr Michael Veale, a UCL lecturer who has been deeply involved with a Europe-wide effort to help build decentralised contact-tracing apps, told Reuters that Singapore’s plans raised accountability and privacy concerns.

“Users will likely find it hard to scrutinise what the device is actually doing, or what information the back-end server uses or links.”

In Italy, the first European country badly hit by Covid-19, music technology company IK Multimedia recently unveiled its 'Safe Spacer' wearable device as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. The device is designed to help people maintain safe social distancing in any environment and situation. Safe Spacer takes a similar body-worn approach to the wearable solution now being proposed by the Singapore government.

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