Reg scribe spends week being watched by government Bluetooth wristband, emerges to more surveillance
Home quarantine week was the price for an overseas trip, ongoing observation is the price of COVID-19
Feature My family and I recently returned to Singapore after an overseas trip that, for the first time in over a year, did not require the ordeal of two weeks of quarantine in a hotel room.
Instead, returning travelers are required to stay at home, wear a government-issued tracking device, and stay within range of a government-issued Bluetooth beacon at all times for a week … or else. No visitors are allowed and only a medical emergency is a ticket out. But that sounded easy compared to the hotel quarantine we endured in 2020.
Things got interesting early when I was handed the tech that enforces the regime in two small blue bags, at 12.30am in Singapore's Changi Airport.
The timing was important: despite our flight arriving late on Saturday night, we cleared customs and immigration after midnight and therefore in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The blue bags containing our tracking devices would therefore be with us until the following Sunday – eight sleeps of surveillance!
The blue bags contained a pair of wristbands and gateways – they seem to have a 1:1 relationship – plus advice on the app that gets them talking. Accompanying documentation explained that the gateway can measure distance to the wristband. If the gateway thinks you've gone beyond an acceptable distance, the authorities are alerted.
According to Singapore's SafeTravel web site:
Personal privacy is protected while using these devices. The device does not have any audio or video recording capabilities. All location data is transmitted via end-to-end encryption and can only be accessed by authorised government officials for investigation.
The system's accompanying pamphlet instructs the owner to set up the tech as soon as they arrive home.
Which meant looking at a long list of application permission requests at an unholy hour of the morning.
The reasons for needing access to the camera, location services, and notifications seemed obvious for a quarantine-enforcement application. Without explanation, Singapore also wanted access to photos, media, and files. Since the alternative was to serve the quarantine in a cramped and expensive hotel room with my kids, I was prepared to allow the app the access it wanted.
Or I was, until I discovered the app was not available in the Google Play Store. While my husband downloaded it with ease, my phone told me it was not available for download in my country.
I fiddled with my settings and SIM card, trying to troubleshoot the problem. It was 4am. I gave up and went to sleep.
In the morning, with jetlag working in my favour, I was able to contact tech support. I was told the error message I received is a common problem and that if the government wanted to talk to me, they'd call - or show up at my door - instead of sending a notification to the app.
I put my watch-like device on my left hand and found a spot to plug in my gateway receiver. The pamphlet said multiple users should spread their gateways across the house for optimal coverage.
Next: arranging delivery of some groceries through other assorted apps, which wasn't possible for three days. This meant – first-world problem alert – falling back to instant coffee. At least the wine shop had a two-hour delivery window.
Around 2pm on the first Sunday, representatives of Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) showed up. Friendly and non-threatening, they asked to see all household members under stay home notices (SHNs) at the gate outside the house. They also asked for our gateway's registration number, photos of the hardware, and phone numbers. They took photos of our QR-coded wristbands.
We didn't see ICA representatives again for the rest of our SHN. However, we did get a few phone calls asking all those on SHN to appear on video, share identification numbers, and present the tracking tech for inspection.
Most of the calls we received without problems. However, there was a time when neither of us answered as we were busy with work and missed or couldn't take the call. Thankfully, the representative seemed reasonably understanding. Apparently being always available is hard, even when you are confined to your own home.
And then it stopped working ... or did it?
At a few points the green flashing light on the gateway turned red or purple. My husband's app didn't offer an explanatory notification, we received no instructions, and nobody started to hunt us down. We shrugged it off.
There were also a few incidents of kids poking around at an adult's wristband and the gateway. The pamphlet distinctly said not to pull or tamper with the equipment for fear of a SG$10,000 penalty, six-month imprisonment, and visa cancellation. Redirection of unwanted child behaviour was futile – no toy is more alluring than that which is forbidden.
Another "fun" part of our week was the gateway's endlessly flashing light. In the dark wee hours of the morning, the combination of flickering lights and wearing a wristband evoked pre-plague memories of attending music festivals. If only I had been having the fun to match, and the flashing light were not a reminder of being tracked.
The new normal: constant observation
I succumbed easily to the idea of being tracked – partly because it has become the norm and partly because I would rather not ever be locked in a hotel room with my family for 14 days again. Even love has limits, thank you very much.
The tracking remains a daily part of Singaporean life and is one of the major reasons the city-state was able to keep COVID at bay in the early days of the pandemic. Although it is not mandatory (only strongly encouraged), the majority of the nation's residents walk around daily with movements recorded by the TraceTogether app that is installed on smartphones or enabled with a wearable token. Installing the app is mandatory for serving SHN.
The TraceTogether app and token are used to check into nearly all public spaces, either by scanning a QR code or by waving the phone or token on a "gateway box".
The TraceTogether app also provides an easy way for restaurants to verify vaccine status, as unvaccinated adults dining out face tighter restrictions.
But it's not just the TraceTogether app, it's also the social distancing ambassadors that normalize monitoring – the thousands of people employed to walk around the island reminding residents to wear their masks properly in public spaces indoor and out, and follow whatever the current rules dictate in regard to party size and social distancing.
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Additionally, you can keep each other honest through a function on the government app, OneService, that allows citizens to report municipal matters, including when others are flouting the rules. Getting your picture snapped and submitted doesn’t automatically get you in trouble, but doing the right thing will clearly avoid possible hassles.
The experience of home quarantine waned along with jetlag. By the end of the week I craved a big walk. I engaged in yard work at the edge of the garden instead – a privilege in high-rise heavy Singapore. As far as I could tell, the gateway and wristband handled the distance just fine.
All things considered, after hotel quarantine and an eight-week strict quarantine measure called "circuit breaker" in the first year of the pandemic, the week did not feel like an undue penance for our trip abroad. It did, however, feel out of step with emerging global travel trends.
Day seven was PCR swab day. We piled in a cab which, per instructions, had its windows down, and made our way to the designated testing centre. On returning home, I tuned into Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech regarding Singapore's continued move towards COVID endemicity and the "new normal" projected to come in three to six months.
The PM announced a total ban on unvaccinated people visiting restaurants and shopping malls - in a city in which shopping and eating out are all-but the national pastimes. Booster vaccine programs were expanded and nine more countries were added to a list eligible for quarantine-free travel, freeing many from having to do what I just did. Many other countries had their quarantine lengths shortened.
Singapore Airlines' web site immediately crashed, as the masses rushed to scope out and purchase flights after 18 months on our very small island.
On the last day of quarantine I received a phone call around 4pm. A government representative asked me to leave the gateways in front of the house for collection. Although we hadn't received any notifications that we were cleared from our quarantine, I checked the nation's HealthHub web site to find I had tested COVID negative. Two hours later, the result showed up on my TraceTogether app.
At 8.30am on the eighth day, we received the texts from ICA declaring us COVID-negative and our SHN completed.
Without ceremony, I cut off my wristband and re-entered the world. A world in which COVID-19 means I'll be tracked almost everywhere I go for the foreseeable future. ®