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Singapore issues COVID-19 contact tracing wearables to 'vulnerable seniors'


Singapore has begun issuing COVID-19 contact tracing wearables to its “most vulnerable seniors”, whom it describes as currently not digitally connected and are at higher risk from the coronavirus. Called TraceTogether Token, the Bluetooth-enabled wearables will each have a unique QR code and does not have internet or cellular connectivity. 

The announcement comes weeks after the government said it was working on a wearable device to plug gaps with its contact tracing app, TraceTogether, which did not work well on Apple devices. It added that a wearable device would not depend on someone owning a smartphone.

According to Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, the token is designed to exchange Bluetooth signals with other TraceTogether Tokens as well as mobile phones running the contact tracing app TraceTogether that are within the stipulated proximity. Introduced in March, the contact tracing app uses the wireless technology to identify participating TraceTogether users who are within 2 metres of each other for more than 30 minutes. The data is then captured, encrypted, and stored locally on the user’s phone for 21 days, which spans the incubation period of the virus. 

The TraceTogether token itself will be “personalised” for the recipient’s use and hold encrypted data of close contacts for no more than 25 days. Users will be notified by the Health Ministry’s contact tracing team if they are detected to be a close contact of a person infected with COVID-19 and the data will be extracted — after the device is physically handed over to an authorised health official — to facilitate contact tracing. 

Apart from the lack of internet or cellular connectivity, the token also does not have GPS, said the government office. The device has an estimated battery life of six to nine months and does not need to be charged.

“TraceTogether Tokens will extend the protection provided by digital contact tracing tools to as many people in Singapore as possible, including those who may not own or prefer not to use a mobile phone,” said Smart Nation and Digital Government Office in a statement Sunday.

It noted that some 2.1 million people had downloaded the TraceTogether app, which it said was insufficient as it excluded individuals who were not digitally connected such as the elderly and young children who might not own smartphones. 

The token would further expand coverage of the local population for more effective contact tracing, the government agency added. Used to complement manual contact tracing, it said such digital tools helped reduce the time needed to map a patient’s activities from two to three days to less than a day. Such efficiencies in time and accuracy would improve contact tracing and better contain the spread of COVID-19, it added.

According to the government office, it is already working on next-generation versions of the TraceTogether Token to improve the device’s design and functionality. These will be issued in subsequent batches, it said. 

ZDNet posed several followup questions to the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, including the number of tokens targeted for release in this first batch, how it was identifying recipients, the timeframe on when future versions would be available, and what design components and functionalities would be improved in these releases. 

A spokesperson from the office did not comment directly on these questions, saying only that it was prioritising seniors who were not digitally connected in this first batch of distribution, including those who were physically frail, living alone, or had poor family support. He added that the Silver Generation Office would be reaching out to these seniors via house visits and that details of future distribution would be released at a later stage. 

He also pointed to an earlier tender issued June 16 by GovTech, calling for bids on the design and manufacturing of the TraceTogether Token. More than 20 companies had been pre-qualified to participate in the tender, which closes tomorrow. Bids would be evaluated based on the proposed technical quality, security, price of the token, and the vendor’s manufacturing capabilities. The tender would be awarded next month. 

The Singapore government’s move to distribute wearable devices to facilitate contact tracing had earlier sparked public outcry from individuals concerned about their privacy. An online petition urging the public to reject its use has, to date, garnered almost 54,000 signatures. It describes the implementation of such devices as “blatant infringements upon our rights to privacy, personal space, and freedom of movement”. 

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(Source: Smart Nation and Digital Government Office) 

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