Singapore to distribute wearable contact-tracing device and won't rule out making it compulsory

Because not everyone has a smartphone and Apple devices remain problematic

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Singapore will introduce a wearable device to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing and the minister responsible won't rule out making it compulsory.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister-in-charge of Singapore's Smart Nation Initiative, said the device is necessary because uptake of Singapore's contact-tracing TraceTogether app has stalled at around 25 per cent of Singapore's population. The minister said the wearable's main target is those who don't have a smartphone or don't have one that delivers useful data with the nation's TraceTogether app. iPhones fall into the latter category because TraceTogether was developed before the Apple and Google contact-tracing API was available. Singapore has shown no sign of adopting that offering since.

The device quickly proved controversial because it was announced late last week with little detail about its capabilities or whether usage would be compulsory. An online petition opposing the device on grounds that it could track citizens therefore gathered over 35,000 signatures in short order.

Balakrishnan was at pains yesterday to say that the wearable is not a tracking device. "It will operate exactly the same way as TraceTogether on a smartphone," he said. "There is no GPS chip on the device, or internet or mobile telephony. The data that TraceTogether captures is only Bluetooth proximity data."

That data never leaves the device unless the user tests positive for COVID-19 and Balakrishnan added that all of the Singapore government officers who can access data are bound by the nation's Official Secrets Act.

But Balakrishnan did not rule out making the device compulsory. He argued that takeup of TraceTogether is not sufficient and that while he hopes education about the benefits of being warned of a COVID-carrier encounter would encourage more use, fighting a pandemic is serious business that could make it necessary to make use of the device compulsory.

"Whether circumstances would ever require mandatory adoption we cannot say," he said. "I am going to do my best to push participation rates up without having to go down the mandatory route."

It's expected the first batch of devices will become available in the second half of June and be distributed according to a to-be-determined list of priority users. ®

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