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By Clare O’Gara
Tue | Jun 9, 2020 | 3:16 PM PDT

SecureWorld has covered the issue of contact tracing recently, from the rise in smishing schemes to an open letter of privacy demands made by health researchers.

We even discussed the topic on an episode of our podcast, The SecureWorld Sessions. You can give that a listen here.

Regardless, where global pandemics are concerned, medical professionals say contact tracing is a critical tool to curbing the spread of a virus.

But it's also a source of controversy, particularly in the privacy and digital security space.

And now, Singapore's challenges with its own contact tracing app have produced another wrinkle, folding wearables into the discussion.

Singapore switching from contact tracing app to wearables

One of the main things we know about contact tracing: it's hard to do.

Garnering mass participation in a public health effort is always challenging. Contact tracing, in particular, requires people to be very granular about their actions and encounters with others.

And contact tracing apps can be a struggle in themselves: questions about how, why, how much, and for whom information is accessible can produce major tension. Plus, you have to make sure the app actually works.

In the case of Singapore's contact tracing app, TraceTogether, the challenges were obvious from the outset. According to a parliamentary meeting in Singapore from Smart Nation, TraceTogether was rocky at best.

Here's what Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, had to say about the problem:

"Unfortunately, the app does not appear to work as well on iOS or Apple devices as the iOS operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background. We've had repeated discussions both at the technical and policy level with Apple, but we have not yet been able to find a satisfactory solution."

TraceTogether drained phone battery life and operated differently depending on the device. Singapore's solution? Scrap the project and introduce something new:

"Because TraceTogether does not work equally well across all smart phones, we have decided, therefore, at this point in time, not to mandate the compulsory use of TraceTogether. Instead, we are developing and will soon roll out a portable wearable device that will achieve the same objective as TraceTogether, but will not depend on possession of a smart phone.

If this portable device works, we may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore. I believe this will be more inclusive, and it will ensure that all of us will be protected."

Despite Balakrishnan's claims about a more "inclusive," protective wearable option, not everyone in Singapore is convinced.

Public outcry led to the creation of a petition to refuse the wearable device, titled Singapore says 'No' to wearable devices for Covid-19 contact tracing.

"We reject the development of this contact tracing device. We view its advent and subsequent implementation with great suspicion and indignation. The claims that such a device be implemented 'for the greater good' and for 'the safety and protection of all Singaporeans' are false and baseless. According to media reports, the non-successful adoption of the Trace Together app can be superceded by the next step that state-sanctioned technological advancements can offer: and this is it."

The petition expresses concern over this device's ability to transform Singapore into a "surveillance state."

The petition had received tens of thousands of signatures at the time this article was published.

Contact tracing, privacy, and cybersecurity problems podcast

On a recent podcast, the SecureWorld News team interviewed The Privacy Professor Rebecca Herold about concerns she has around contact tracing apps and data collection by humans as part of a contact tracing effort.

"You can't preserve privacy if you can't control the data," Herold says. "And to control the data, you have to have security applied to it in many different ways and layers, making sure only those who need access can get access, protecting the data from being captured as it's being transmitted through different types of pathways and other methods."

Herold co-authored the new NIST Privacy Framework, and you can listen to her interview about contact tracing here or on all popular podcast platforms: