Singapore may launch wearable device for coronavirus contact tracing this month

Singapore says it will not carry a GPS chip or have internet and mobile connectivity, but fears are growing among citizens over its potential to track their movements.

Sareena Dayaram Senior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
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As of June 4, Singapore has confirmed 36,922 coronavirus cases.

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Singapore announced earlier this month that it plans to launch a wearable device to help with coronavirus contact tracing. It could be rolled out to the state's 5.7 million residents as early as mid-June if it proves to be effective, according to local media.

"We are developing and will soon roll out a portable wearable device that will... not depend on possession of a smartphone," Singapore's foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan told parliament last Friday. "I believe this will be more inclusive and it will ensure that all of us will be protected."

The upcoming wearable device marks Singapore's attempt at a supplemental contact tracing method and comes as the city-state grapples with one of the highest caseloads in Asia, after being lauded for its "gold standard" response in the early stages of the pandemic. 

News of the wearable device, which can be carried in a handbag or worn at the end of lanyard, has been met with criticism amongst Singaporeans, some of whom expressed concerns over privacy. An online petition with the title "Singapore says 'No' to wearable devices for COVID-19 contact tracing" received more than 37,400 signatures as of Tuesday. The petition goes on to cite the potential for the device to help authorities "track citizens' movements 24/7. "This will be done regardless of whether the person has a phone or not, regardless whether their phone is switched off or on," it says.

Addressing privacy concerns, Balakrishnan -- who is also the minister in charge of the city-state's smart nation initiative -- said Monday the device will not have GPS, nor will it have internet or cellular connectivity. As such, it cannot track location or movement of individuals.

Singapore released one of the first nationwide contact tracing apps, called TraceTogether, in March. The app uses Bluetooth signals to help authorities identify which people have been exposed to patients infected with the coronavirus. In an analysis of 25 apps, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), gave it five out of five stars. But it was not widely downloaded by Singaporeans and doesn't work as well on  Apple  or iOS devices, which suspend Bluetooth when the app is running in the background.  The island nation has also deployed robot dogs, developed by Boston Dynamics, at a local park to remind visitors to practice proper social distancing.

Singapore is not alone in testing wearables for distribution to its residents. South Korea and Hong Kong, places where the coronavirus has been largely contained, have relied on wearable devices to help enforce their respective quarantines. 

As of Monday, Singapore confirmed a total of 38,296 coronavirus cases.