In March, Singapore government launched the mobile app “TraceTogether” to help support and supplement current contact tracing efforts in the nation, in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
TraceTogether works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating TraceTogether users in close proximity. Records of such encounters are stored locally on each user’s phone.
According to a statement by the Smart Nation Office under the Prime Minister’s Office in Singapore, there are about 1.8 million people who have downloaded the TraceTogether app, but “it is not enough,” as the app does not currently cover the digitally excluded population including the elderly and young children who may not have smartphones. Another issue is that the app does not work reliably on iOS devices.
Under these considerations, the Singapore government has expanded the “TraceTogether” Programme to include a stand-alone device called the “TraceTogether Token”. It will function in the same way the app does using Bluetooth signals to record other nearby TraceTogether devices.
Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said during a media briefing on 8 June that the first batch of these devices will be available from the later half of the month and will be progressively distributed to Singapore households. Accordingly the distribution has started and the initial rollout is happening in areas with a greater concentration of elderly people, who are both at a greater health risk from Covid-19 and less likely to own a smart phone. But the token will be available to all citizens, including foreign residents.
In terms of privacy safeguards, the statement by the Smart Nation Office added that the TraceTogether Token has no GPS and has no Internet or cellular connectivity. The data cannot be pulled from the device unless the user physically hands in the device to Ministry of Health (MOH) contact tracers, if and when he/she is confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.
The statement also emphasized that 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 Singapore government hopes that the tokens will help to further reopen the economy, by enabling conferences to restart and providing better tracing in higher risk settings, such as busy hotels, cinemas and gyms.