Coronavirus: Why Singapore turned to wearable contact-tracing tech

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Andrew Huang

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

The wearable devices complement the island’s existing contact-tracing app, to identify people who could have been infected by those people who have tested positive for the herpes 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 get the devices are thousands of susceptible elderly people who don’t own smartphones.

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

If dongle users test positive for the condition, they have to hand their device to the Ministry of Health because – unlike the app – they cannot transmit data online.

Human contact-tracers will then utilize the logs to identify and advise other individuals who might have been infected.

“It’s very boring in what it does, which is why I think it’s a good design,” says hardware developer Sean Cross.

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

“It can correlate who you’d been with, who you’ve infected and, crucially, who may have infected you,” Mr Cross adds.

App aid

Singapore was the first country to deploy a national coronavirus-tracing app.

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

It is voluntary for everyone except migrant workers living in dorms, who take into account the majority of Singapore’s 44,000-plus infections.

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

But by its own admission, the tech doesn’t work in addition to had been hoped.

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AFP/Getty Images

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Some people have uninstalled the app because of its drain on battery life

On iPhones, the app has to be running in the foreground for Bluetooth “handshakes” to occur, this means users can not use their handsets for anything else. It’s also an enormous drain on the battery. Android devices don’t face the same problem.

Automated contact-tracing can theoretically be hugely effective, but only if lots of a populace is involved.

So, owners of Apple’s devices tend to be among others asked to utilize the dongles in the future.

Privacy concerns

When the Token was first announced in early June, there clearly was a public backlash contrary to the government – something that is just a relatively rare occurrence in Singapore.

Wilson Low started an on the web petition calling for it to be ditched. Almost 54,000 folks 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.

“What comes next would be laws that state these devices should not be turned off [and must] stick to a person all the time – hence sealing our fate as a police state.”

Ministers point out the devices do not log GPS location data or connect to mobile networks, so can’t be employed for surveillance of a person’s movements.

Mr Cross agrees that from what he was shown, the dongles can’t be used as location-trackers.

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

“At the end of the day, the Ministry of Health can go from this cryptic, secret number that only they know, to a phone number – to an individual,” that he explains.

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Silver Generation Office (SGO)

By contrast, apps centered on Apple and Google’s model alert users if they are in danger, but don’t reveal their identities to the authorities. It is up to the individuals to do this when, for example, they sign up for a test.

Dr Michael Veale, an electronic digital rights expert at University College London, warns of the possibility of mission creep.

He gives an example where a government struggling against Covid-19 might want to enforce quarantine control. It could do this, he says, by fitting Bluetooth sensors to public spaces to identify dongle users who’re out and about if they should be self-isolating at home.

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

“The buildability is the worrying part.”

But the state in charge of the agency in charge of TraceTogether plays down such concerns.

“There is a high trust relationship between the government and people, and there is data protection,” says Kok Ping Soon, chief executive of GovTech.

He adds he hopes people recognises that the health authorities need this data to protect them and themselves.

Another reason Singapore prefers its own scheme over Apple and Google’s is that it can provide epidemiologists with greater insight into an outbreak’s spread.

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.

If Singapore’s wearables act as hoped, other nations might be tempted to follow.

“[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 person in the group invited by Singapore to inspect its hardware.

“There is perhaps a paradoxical consequence that greater freedoms are possible.”

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