Singapore enforces contact tracing ahead of reopening plans

Singaporeans social distancing during the circuit breaker in May. Photo: zhenkang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Singapore has seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases, the city-state’s government is now enforcing mandatory nationwide contact tracing through apps and Bluetooth tokens. However, their latest move faces resistance.

By Joelyn Chan

While the United States and parts of Europe struggle with divided opinions on mask wearing, Singapore’s government is adding on another layer of COVID-19 measures. The city-state is now moving to make its SafeEntry and TraceTogether contact tracing systems mandatory, adding to existing social distancing and mask requirements

SafeEntry is a national digital check-in system for venues: visitors scan their identification cards or check in on their phones using either the venue’s QR code or SingPass—an online account used to access government services.

TraceTogether uses Bluetooth between phones or devices known as “tokens”, which the government has been distributing to residents free of charge. Each TraceTogether token is printed with a unique QR code and TraceTogether app users can connect with the token to record their encounter.  

Singapore is currently in phase two of the government’s reopening plan, with most businesses open, a five-person limit on social gatherings and schools fully re-opened.

“Having 70% of Singapore’s population using TraceTogether is one of the conditions that has to be met for Singapore to enter phase three,” said Education Minister Lawrence Wong, also the co-chair of the country’s COVID-19 task force. Phase three refers to the third and last stage of the nation’s reopening plan and will allow larger meetings of up to 250 participants and social gatherings of up to eight people.

So far, the government hasn’t set a date for phase three—to re-open Singapore’s economy safely, the government is placing its hopes in TraceTogether.

Will the TraceTogether application and token take off successfully?

Since the app launched in March, only a quarter of Singapore’s population has downloaded TraceTogether and the low adoption rates have limited the app’s effectiveness.  

But with the ongoing distribution of free TraceTogether tokens, about 50% of the population is now registered in the TraceTogether database. The token distribution increases TraceTogether participation rates among children and the elderly, who may not have smartphones that support the TraceTogether app. Each token costs the government about S$10 (US$7.32).

While most residents can now use TraceTogether tokens, the country has rolled out a different system for migrants. A large portion of migrants in Singapore work in construction and some aren’t allowed to carry their phones at their work sites. Instead of relying on the TraceTogether app or token, the government is issuing 450,000 devices called BluePass tokens to migrants. The devices are light, water-resistant and can be worn around the wrist.

By the end of December, people will have to use the TraceTogether app or a token to check in before entering public venues.

Users of TraceTogether are concerned about possible privacy infringement

According to the government, the TraceTogether app and token will make digital contact tracing faster and more effective than under the SafeEntry system. Tracing could reportedly take less than a day, compared to two to three days using manual methods.

However, people are reluctant to use the TraceTogether app or tokens, citing personal privacy as a key concern. Some users have allegedly modified their TraceTogether tokens and tried to block their Bluetooth signals—in defiance of the nation’s Computer Misuse Act, which says that tampering with the token is a criminal offense.

Information gathered by TraceTogether is encrypted and stored locally in the app or token for up to a month. The individual’s identity, location and data are not compromised, according to the government. Users will need to authorize any upload of their TraceTogether data to the Ministry of Health’s server. Unless they are infected with COVID-19 or come into contact with COVID-19 patients, they will not need to share their TraceTogether data.

Most ASEAN nations have some form of mobile contact tracing application or device. In a review of these programs around the region, Singapore-based cybersecurity firm Data Protection Excellence Network (DPEX) found that the TraceTogether app and Vietnam’s Blue Zone app required the fewest number of permissions to access phone data.

Country Singapore Malaysia Thailand Indonesia Vietnam Philippines
Application TraceTogether MyTrace Mor Chana PeduliLindungi Blue Zone StaySafe
Device and app history    
Contacts, Device ID, Call information, Identity, Microphone
Location, Storage, Photo/Media Files
Number of “dangerous permissions” 6 7 9 7 6 7

Source: DPEX

ASEAN nations implement different regulations over COVID-19

Approaches and policies on COVID-19 containment differ across Southeast Asia, especially around punishments for violating regulations, with Singapore imposing high fines and certain areas of the Philippines enforcing jail time. In Indonesia, authorities have required violators to complete different types of community service.

Country Singapore Malaysia Thailand Indonesia Vietnam Philippines
Mask Wearing Mandatory Mandatory Advisable / Mandatory Mandatory Mandatory Mandatory
Where? Outside home Exceptions: Kids under 2 years old, individuals engaging in strenuous exercise or travelling in a personal vehicle Public places Mandatory on public transport/before entering malls Public places Public places/ crowded places Public places
Fines / Punishment First offense:  S$300 (US$220) Subsequent offense: S$1,000 (US$732) RM 1,000 (US$240) NA No fines Community service, depending on the area Up to US$13 Varies depending on area (In Cebu, for the first offense: PHP2,000 (US$41), three months in prison or both 2nd offense: fine of PHP3,000 (US$62), six months in prison or both 3rd offense: PHP5,000 (US$103) fine and six months in prison

Sources: Thai PBS, Channel News Asia, The Star, Jakarta Post, VOA, PNA

In countries with low numbers of COVID-19 cases, such as Thailand, citizens are doing away with mask-wearing practices as COVID-19 control measures have relaxed. But Singapore still requires social distancing and masks and is going full-force to achieve nationwide adoption of TraceTogether.

It is unclear how long the government will enforce the use of TraceTogether—the tokens are not rechargeable and reportedly have only six-to-nine months of battery life.

Even if Singapore is being overly risk averse, other ASEAN nations could learn from its efforts to prevent another wave or outbreaks of infection.

About the Author

Joelyn Chan
Joelyn is a freelance writer based in Singapore. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Double Bachelor in Accountancy and Business. During her free time, she explores the latest developments in fintech and business.