SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore plans to give a wearable device that will identify people who had interacted with carriers of coronavirus to all of its 5.7 million residents, in what could become one of the most comprehensive contact tracing efforts globally.
FILE PHOTO: People cross a street during morning peak hour commute amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
The small device, which can be worn on the end of a lanyard or carried in a handbag, follows glitches with an earlier smartphone-based bluetooth system which limited take up of the technology.
Singapore, a tiny city-state with one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in Asia, is one of many countries trying to develop technology that will allow them to exit lockdowns and safely restart their economies.
“We are developing and will soon roll out a portable wearable device that will … not depend on possession of a smartphone,” said Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the city-state’s smart nation initiative said on Friday.
“If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore.”
The government did not specify whether carrying the device would be mandatory.
The government’s earlier TraceTogether app was downloaded by around 1.5 million users, but has encountered problems especially on Apple (AAPL.O) devices where its operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app runs in the background.
“We’ve had repeated discussions both at the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution,” Balakrishnan said.
The pivot to wearables is a signal that Singapore has no immediate plans to adopt contact tracing technology from Apple and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google rolled out last month, which has several restrictions designed to protect users’ privacy.
Singapore has not provided details on the technology that will be used in the new wearable devices.
But analysts say the new technology could face similar adoption challenges to its predecessor.
“The government would likely have to mandate the use of such a device for the system to be effective, which is something that few countries have done so far,” said Frederic Giron, a Singapore-based analyst with market research firm Forrester.
Many experts have raised privacy concerns about contact tracing devices. Singapore has said data collected though its earlier app is encrypted and stored locally in the user’s phone, and will only be transferred to authorities if the individual is confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.
Reporting by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Robert Birsel and Toby Chopra