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Singapore wants every resident to wear a COVID-19 tracing device

It's raising serious privacy concerns.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
June 5, 2020
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SINGAPORE - JUNE 02:  Commuters wearing protective mask ride the train on June 2, 2020 in Singapore. The authority decided to remove all safe distancing stickers and markers from trains and buses as they deemed it is too challenging for commuters to keep their social distance. Today, Singapore embarks on phase one of a three phase approach against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as it begins to ease the partial lockdown measures by allowing the safe re-opening of economic activities which do not pose high risk of transmission. This include the resumption of selected health services, re-opening of schools with school children attending schools on rotational basis, manufacturing and production facilities, construction sites that adhere to safety measures, finance and information services that do not require interactions and places of worship, amongst others. Retail outlets, social and entertainment activities will remain closed and dining in at food and beverage outlets will still be disallowed. The government will further ease restriction by the middle of June if the infection rate within the community remains low over the next two weeks.(Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

For Singapore, contact tracing apps might not be enough to help reopen the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic eases. Smart nation minister Vivian Balakrishnan has revealed that the city-state is close to releasing a wearable contact tracing device that it may soon hand out to “everyone in Singapore.” It’s not certain if the device would be mandatory, but that amounts to giving 5.7 million residents a gadget whether or not they want to use it.

The hardware could be worn on a lanyard or carried in a bag, and isn’t dependent on a phone.

While officials didn’t specify what prompted the plan, it comes after Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, fell flat. While 1.4 million people have downloaded the app, development minister Lawrence Wong told the SCMP that 75 percent of the population needs to use it to be effective. Although the government has stressed that it keeps data encrypted, stores it on-device and won’t ask for it unless someone is infected, objectors have worried about other privacy issues (such as the potential for a breach), the battery drain from constant proximity checking and a lack of background scanning on iPhones. Singapore has declined to use Apple and Google technology that shouldn’t have that problem.

The plan for a wearable may exacerbate privacy concerns, however. University College London lecturer Michael Veal told Reuters that it might not be clear what the devices are doing, or what information is involved. While Singapore likely wouldn’t be tracking residents’ locations, it’d still be asking an entire city to wear connected devices for an unspecified amount of time — that’s going to raise fears of data misuse no matter how careful officials may be.

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