Contact tracing device to be rolled out this month

It will not track people's whereabouts, says minister as he addresses privacy concerns

The first batch of wearable devices for Covid-19 contact tracing will be rolled out later this month.
The first batch of wearable devices for Covid-19 contact tracing will be rolled out later this month. PHOTO: ST FILE

A new contact tracing device will be rolled out from the second half of this month, as the authorities step up efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan, in explaining the need for such a wearable device yesterday, assured Singaporeans that it is not an electronic tag and will not track people's whereabouts.

Data collected will stay encrypted in the device, dubbed the TraceTogether Token, until the user is confirmed to be a Covid-19 patient. The device will then be handed over to the authorities.

"Then and only then is the data uploaded to the Ministry of Health (MOH)," said Dr Balakrishnan.

The token's introduction comes at a time when contact tracing becomes all the more vital in Singapore's efforts to battle Covid-19 as more activities resume post-circuit breaker.

Explaining that the disease spreads more easily at the start of the illness, Dr Balakrishnan said digital contact tracing can speed up the identification of Covid-19 patients and those with whom they had been in close contact.

For instance, what used to take two to three days - to trace the close contacts of an infected person - now takes less than a day with the use of digital tools such as the TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth technology to identify nearby mobile handsets, and the Government's visitor check-in system SafeEntry.

Speaking at a multi-ministry task force news conference yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan said those who do not have mobile phones will be prioritised. The device will be distributed in a similar way to how the Government has given out masks.

The token will work in the same way as TraceTogether, exchanging and logging Bluetooth signals between nearby devices.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, said travellers here could also be asked to participate in TraceTogether. He did not specify if they would be given the token or asked to download the app.

Addressing privacy concerns which have surfaced since the token was announced last Friday, Dr Balakrishnan said: "It is not an electronic tag. "There is no GPS (global positioning system) chip on the device. There isn't even any Internet or mobile telephony connectivity."

Only a small number of authorised personnel will have access to the data for contact tracing purposes, he said.

All public sector data protection rules will apply to the data held by MOH, including abiding by the recommendations of the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee. The recommendations include applying digital watermarking to files to identify the source of any leaked files, and replacing data that may identify individuals with random values in a process known as tokenisation.

The Bluetooth exchange logs will be stored for 25 days on a rolling basis on the token, with much older information deleted automatically.

The token will ensure that people who may not have smartphones, including the elderly and young children, can take part in contact tracing. Also, technical difficulties have prevented the TraceTogether app from working well on iPhones. The token is said to be able to plug this gap.

About 1.8 million users have downloaded the TraceTogether app since it was launched in March, which works out to about 25 per cent of Singapore's population. This falls short of the optimum number of users that is needed for TraceTogether to work well, which is about three-quarters of the population.

Dr Balakrishnan said that for now, the Government will still be adopting the voluntary participation approach, and will not make both the token and app mandatory.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2020, with the headline 'Contact tracing device to be rolled out this month'. Subscribe