Move over contact tracing apps, in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), a wearable device, which doesn't need a smartphone Bluetooth or Wi-Fi is the way forward. Singapore government may soon launch a wearable contact tracing device that will be distributed to all as the city-state begins normalcy after ending the circuit-breaker ealy this week. The Minister of the Smart Nation Initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan announced it in parliament on Friday, June 5.

With Coronavirus pandemic putting thousands of people at risk of contracting the disease, the Singapore government launched the contact tracing app TraceTogether that sends a signal using Bluetooth to each when in proximity. However, Apple's iOS suspends Bluetooth connections when the application runs in the background, meaning that the app stops receiving or sending signals, making it useless to trace contacts in case of a positive COVID-19 patient. It works well on Android though.

TraceTogether
TraceTogether app YouTube Grab

"The app does not appear to work as well on iOS or Apple devices," Balakrishnan said. "We have had repeated discussions at both the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution."

The government also decided not to make the download of app mandatory for the same reason. Nonetheless, one-fifth of Singapore's population, about 1.5 Million people, downloaded the app. However, Balakrishnan believes that the TraceTogether app is a helpful tool when it is used in combination with other data sources to trace contacts and curb the spread of the disease.

More Inclusive

In the post-circuit-breaker world, efficient contact tracing would be important. Although the wearable device is still in development, Balakrishnan believes the device will "achieve the same objective" as TraceTogether. "If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. And I believe this will be more inclusive, and it will ensure that all of us will be protected," he added.

Such wearable devices are already in existence in some countries including the U.S. The Tempo smart wristband, developed by CarePredict, tested the device in a senior living facility in Amarillo, Texas in April. When they suspected that a nurse might have contracted the virus, they had a list of possible interactions within five minutes.

CarePredict smartbands
CarePredict smartbands were used to trace contact in a living facility in the U.S. Twitter/CarePredict

While the process through which Tempo smartband works is costly as it needs a physical beacon on each wall, a simple Bluetooth signal would also be effective in such cases. Technology giants like Apple and Google are already working on such wearable devices as per reports while software development company Myplanet and carmaker Ford Motor are testing existing smartbands as contract trackers.

Germany and South Korea have been using wearable devices (like ankle bracelets) to strictly monitor quarantined people in the country.

Privacy concerns

In the contact tracing apps, the major concern has been the data security and privacy. Many apps in different countries have been allegedly collecting data without users' consent. It also raises questions on how it could be used as a surveillance tool for the governments.

Balakrishnan said that at present, there are safeguards including encryption in the TraceTogether app. It protects the users' data from hackers stealing data as the server automatically deletes user information after 25 days.

Data security
Data security (representational picture) Pixabay

"If the close contact data is required for contact tracing, only a small group of authorized officers in MOH will have access to it," he said. "Now that we have more people moving about, going to work, there will be more occasions when more people will have more close interactions with each other."

"If we can reduce the incidence of clusters by better and faster contact tracing, then we can avoid having to reintroduce restrictive circuit breaker measures in the future. I hope that all members of the public will work with us to achieve this," he noted.