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Singapore government developing wearable device for virus track and trace

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs spoke on Friday 5 June about the uptake of the TraceTogether App launched in March 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore.

In his update he stated that the TraceTogether App has been downloaded on a voluntary basis by 1.5 million users.

Although Dr Vivian Balakrishnan remarked that the voluntary downloads were encouraging, he also stated that the App was not performing well on certain platforms.

TraceTogether has difficulty operating on Apple devices

“Unfortunately, the app does not appear to work as well on iOS or Apple devices as the iOS operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background.”

“We’ve had repeated discussions both at the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution.”

Portable Wearable Device to achieve same objective as TraceTogether App

As the TraceTogether App does not work equally well across all smart phones the government has not enforced the compulsory use of TraceTogether.

“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 smart phone. If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore.”

He went on to say that this option would be more inclusive, for everyone and would ensure that all citizens were protected.

Technology is an enabler; it is not a replacement for human judgement.

The data from TraceTogether is considered a very helpful additional tool for contact tracers, especially when it is used in combination with other data sources.

In some cases, it has improved the contact tracing process by automatically generating a preliminary list of close contacts for quarantine, and thereby it reduces the time taken to isolate these contacts, and prevents them from spreading the disease more extensively.

He said that “I would like to emphasise that contact tracing remains a professional skill that is ultimately dependent on human judgement.”

Addressing Data Privacy Concerns

Amid data privacy concerns the Minister-in-Charge reiterated that the data is stored only on your own phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH only if the individual tests positive for Covid-19.

“This data is only used for contact tracing. There are safeguards, including encryption, in place to protect this from malicious hackers. The 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 MOH will have access to it. All the public sector data protection rules will also apply.”

Track and Track even more important as country emerges from Circuit Breaker

The Minister-In-Charge emphasised that quick and accurate contact tracing is a necessity, stressing that it has become all the more essential now that Singapore is emerging from the circuit breaker.

“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. It will speed up the isolation of close contacts, and reduce the risk of them spreading Covid-19 to their loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues and the community at large.”

He said that if we can reduce the incidence of clusters by better and faster contact tracing, then we can avoid having to re-introduce restrictive circuit breaker measures in the future.

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