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Exiting lockdowns… with apps and devices?

Our neighbour down south, was lauded at first, for its quick and decisive measures to curb the coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) even described Singapore’s approach as ‘leaving no stone unturned.’

Despite this, Singapore succumbed to a dramatic spike in infections later on due to, many believe, it having overlooked the migrant worker community and/or underestimating the impact of returning Singaporeans from overseas.

Singapore has taken a few more decisive measures since then, for example a national digital check-in system, SafeEntry, that is deployed at over 16.000 venues.. So far, retail outlets are not required to deploy it, although the list of public areas, workplaces, facilities that are required to is pretty long.

SafeEntry is even progressively rolled out to taxis, and all commuters who enter the taxi have to scan the SafeEntry QR code found in them.

Now, Singapore wants to up the ante by proposing wearable devices for the general population, in the near future.

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan proposed this measure, citing poor interoperability of Singapore’s Trace Together app, with different brands of smartphones. He also cited the government’s non-compulsory usage stance of Trace Together, which seems to imply this stance may change, if a wearable device for Singaporeans was to be approved for roll out.

This proposed device has sparked public outcry from individuals concerned with their privacy rights being infringed.

According to an observer of the whole scenario, the ensuing online petition to stop the use of this wearable device, “…makes a lot of sense, especially if authorities deem it ok to go overboard and encroach on privacy, with that gadget. It only requires a software update, if the capability to do so isn’t built-in already.”

According to what little is known of the device, it uses Bluetooth technology and works much like a proximity tracker. Mr. Vivian had elaborated that the device would not use GPS or cellular technology.

Malaysia is next?

The same observer who wishes to remain anonymous, also pointed out that visitors to Singapore may be refused entry unless they don the device. What then?

That’s not all.

He said, “I think in Malaysia, some wise guys have come up with similar proposals as well. This is a presumption based on past trends. ”

It would be safe to presume a similar wearable device would not be received well in Malaysia, due to the same privacy concerns. Reception towards local health and tracing apps have been lukewarm due to this.

One of these apps is a health assessment and monitoring app called MySejahtera. it recently crashed because of the sudden upward surge in registrations, up to 700,000 in a minute. This demand is believed to be due to Malaysians rushing to claim their RM50 ewallet credit, on MySejahtera.

Slow exits

 Not just in Malaysia, but countries around this region are slowly but surely reopening their economies and taking some pretty stringent steps while doing so. For example, Malaysia comes out of its almost 3 month-long lockdown, but still disallows huge gatherings, still bans high-touch, business sectors from opening, and makes it mandatory for premises like malls and office buildings to scan the temperature of visitors and record their contact details. Masks and hand sanitisation are also compulsory.

An INSEAD professor of Economics, Antonio Fatas was reported as saying that locking down the economy was difficult and painful, but opening up is an exercise in micromanaging many elements.

If the population is to be let out of confinement, then we have to record our whereabouts, so if ever an infection is reported, people suspected to be near the patient can be contacted to take the necessary action.

This is necessary for swift isolation and swift treatment, so we can break transmission chains and stop the virus from spreading further in the community.

But how are we going to record this location data about ourselves reliably and seamlessly, in a way that still protects our privacy rights and and in  way that will spur us to timely action if needed?