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Singapore's move to introduce wearable devices for contact tracing sparks public outcry

ZDNet logo ZDNet 7/6/2020 Eileen Yu
a drawing of a person © ZDNet

Singapore currently is developing a wearable device that may be issued to every resident as a way to facilitate contact tracing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but the move has sparked public outcry from individuals concerned about their privacy. An online petition urging the public to reject its use has, to date, garnered more than 17,500 signatures.

Headlined "Singapore says 'No' to wearable devices for COVID-19 contact tracing", the online petition describes the implementation of such devices as "blatant infringements upon our rights to privacy, personal space, and freedom of movement". "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. What comes next would be laws that state these devices must not be turned off [or] remain on a person at all times -- thus, sealing our fate as a police state," wrote Wilson Low, who started the petition on June 5. 

Singapore's Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, said during a parliament session Friday that while the government had earlier introduced a contact tracing app, TraceTogether, a wearable device was necessary as it would not depend on someone owning a smartphone. There also were issues with the app, which did not work well on Apple devices as the iOS operating system would suspend Bluetooth scanning when the app was running in the background. 

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Balakrishnan said his team was developing and would "soon roll out a portable wearable device". 

While the minister said the devices, when proven to work effectively, might be issued to every resident in Singapore, he did not explicitly say the government would make it mandatory for everyone to use it. 

In a followup post today, though, Low noted that whether the government made the use of such device compulsory was "a moot point". "Even if if were not, we recognise the potential creation of a two-tiered society -- those who wear the devices versus [those] do who do not -- therein, and an open pass to engage in yet another form of prejudice and societal stratification," he wrote.

"The only thing that stops this device from potentially being allowed to track citizens' movements 24 by 7 are: if the wearable device runs out of power; if a counter-measure device that broadcasts a jamming signal masking the device's whereabouts; or if the person chooses to live 'off the grid' in total isolation, away from others and outside of any smartphone or device effective range," he noted. 

Others also have voiced their concerns about the potential implementation of wearable devices, taking to Balakrishnan's Facebook page to urge the government against taking this route. 

One user, Francis Lum, said: "Can the government explore technologies that doesn't interfere with people's daily living? We are not one big giant high surveillance prison, are we? Too intrusive. This is like an electronic tag for prisoners or offenders."

Chong Wen Hao also wrote: "With the rapid advancement of technology, we know that such level of surveillance is unavoidable. Even without this wearable device. it will come sooner or later in other forms. However, the idea of a wearable worn for tracking purposes is just too intrusive from a usability standpoint."

Local artist Hossan Leong noted: "Respectfully... No. I have done everything. Downloaded the app, SafeEntry...but wearing a device is one step too far."

In response, the minister suggested that the device would be "far less intrusive" than a smartphone or facial recognition. 

In a reply to another person's comment that, apart from being intrusive, it would be cumbersome to recharge the wearable device on a daily basis, Balakrishnan elaborated that the device used only the proximity function of Bluetooth and would not require GPS or cellular connection. This, he added, would ensure privacy and a battery that could last several months before a replacement was required. 

"The data stays encrypted only with you," he said. "There are no complicated controls. Just switch on once -- that's it."

One user Ian Chionh, however, wrote on Facebook that the government was simply using the coronavirus as "an excuse" to put a tracking device on all residents. 

Low also said: "The government looks to the COVID-19 pandemic as the perfect excuse to realise what it has always envisioned for us, this country's populace: to surveil us with impunity, to track us without any technological inhibitions, and maintain a form of movement monitoring on each of us at all times and places. And to do so by decreeing it compulsory for all law-abiding persons to become 'recipients'."

Countries such as Hong Kong and South Korea also are using digital wristbands to track the movements of people under quarantine.

Apart from TraceTogether, the Singapore government uses a digital check-in tool, SafeEntry, to facilitate its contact tracing efforts. The system collects visitors' personal data, either through QR codes or barcode scans, when they enter a venue such as supermarkets and workplaces. The data then can be used to facilitate contact tracing should an individual who visited a location test positive for COVID-19. SafeEntry is mandatory at certain locations and, to date, has been deployed at more than 16,000 sites island-wide.

Data collected through SafeEntry is retained for 25 days, similar to TraceTogether's data retention policy, which the government says is the necessary retention period to support the Health Ministry's contact tracing efforts. 

The TraceTogether app last week was updated to include the registration of passport numbers for travellers visiting Singapore and barcode scans to support SafeEntry. 

The country has begun 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. 

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