Singapore gives out pocket-sized device to trace coronavirus

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore began handing out pocket-sized coronavirus contact-tracing devices to residents on Monday, part of a planned nationwide rollout to help the city-state safely reopen its economy.

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Like an earlier smartphone app released by the government, the box-shaped tokens use Bluetooth signals to record nearby devices and store encrypted data of a users’ close contacts.

If users test positive for COVID-19, the devices have to be handed over to the authorities to extract the data on other people they have potentially exposed to the virus.

While the government plans universal distribution of the tokens, elderly residents have been prioritised because they are less likely to have smartphones and therefore own the existing app. They are also more vulnerable to the disease.

Authorities say the contact-tracing app has been downloaded by about 40% of residents, although it has encountered problems, especially on Apple devices where its operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app runs in the background.

Similar apps in places including Israel and South Korea have raised privacy concerns, but Singapore has said its contact-tracing token will store data locally for no more than 25 days and that it does not have internet or cellular connectivity.

Singapore has not made the app or token mandatory but has urged residents to use them when they are outside their homes.

The Southeast Asian island has recorded over 57,000 COVID-19 cases, mainly in cramped migrant worker dormitories, but only 27 people have died from the disease - one of the lowest fatality rates worldwide.

“I’m not good at technology,” said 60-year-old Noor Rahmat, one of scores of elderly residents who queued at a community centre on Monday to collect the devices that can be worn on the end of a lanyard or carried in a handbag.

“We have to follow rules, this is for the benefit of yourself and others.”

Reporting by Chen Lin; Editing by John Geddie and Mike Collett-White