Singapore has started distributing Bluetooth contact-tracing tokens to its five million residents to help contain the spread of Covid-19.
The tokens, which can be worn on a lanyard or carried, are a hardware version of its existing contact-tracing app which was rolled out in March.
Like the app, they use Bluetooth to look for other users’ devices and then log any contact with those devices.
They could be popular with older people who do not use smart phones.
The government also hopes the tokens will help to further reopen the economy, by enabling conferences to restart and providing better tracing in higher risk settings such as busy hotels, cinemas and gyms.
The initial rollout is happening in areas with a greater concentration of elderly people, who are both at a greater health risk from Covid-19 and less likely to own a smart phone.
But the token will be available to all citizens, including foreign residents.
Singapore residents currently check-in to shops and office buildings using a separate SafeEntry system, that makes use of QR codes to log users’ presence.
For some higher-risk activities, SafeEntry will now also require the app or token to check in.
Better for privacy?
A consultant tapped by the government’s technology agency to provide feedback on the token said it’s a better option for anyone concerned about privacy.
“I would prefer to use the token over the app,” said Bunnie Huang, who lined up for a token on the first day it was available.
Like app, information is stored on the token, purged regularly and is only uploaded – or in the case of the token physically handed over – to the Ministry of Health if the user tests positive.
The tokens can be carried on a lanyard or in a bag, and don’t require a smart phone to run.
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The advantage to a hardware-only version, said Mr Huang, is that it makes it impossible for a software update to surreptitiously turn on location data or other sensors without the user noticing.
“With the token, if I want it off, I know how to destroy it,” he said.
The token will also help to cover people without a smart phone, and those who have encountered functionality problems with the app, he said.
Apps around the world
Singapore was the first government to introduce a contact tracing app nationally in March.
Since then, about 2.4 million people have downloaded the app, with about 1.4 million using it in August.
Singapore government figures have long acknowledged that those numbers need to increase to make the app and the token effective.
But the Ministry of Health said the program has helped to reduce the time it takes to identify and quarantine close contacts of Covid-19 cases from four days to two.
The city-state has been more enthusiastic about contact tracing apps than many other countries, which have been slower to introduce apps or have struggled to make good use of them.
England and Wales, for example, won’t introduce their app until later this month, while Australia has struggled to get any information from the app that it didn’t get by regular contact tracing.