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Coronavirus

Singapore mandates use of tracing app as it fights COVID's spread

Residents will not be able to leave home without a digital device by end of year

A theater asks moviegoers to check-in by scanning a QR code with special app-equipped smartphones. By the end of the year, Singaporeans will have to carry either a Bluetooth token or a special app-equipped smartphone to go almost anywhere in the city-state.

SINGAPORE -- Singapore has begun requiring everyone to carry a digital device -- either their smartphone with a government contact-tracing app or an electronic token -- that is meant to help authorities identify those who might have had contact with coronavirus patients.

The new layer of surveillance has some Singaporeans concerned about potential mission creep. These worries were not dispersed by its introduction on Monday, when it became compulsory for moviegoers entering cinemas. ''I did not know it had become mandatory to use the app starting today,'' said Raghbeer Singh, who seemed perplexed in front of a movie theater. "The government announcement always comes at the last minute."

By the end of the year, the system will cover everyone going to offices, factories, schools, restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, banks and gyms.

Singapore's SafeEntry system already mandates that everyone entering such public facilities scan QR codes with their smartphones and input their personal information, and to similarly "check out" upon leaving.

The government is now linking the SafeEntry program to its contact-tracing app, which works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between mobile phones in proximity. The app records close contacts between app users that can then be followed when someone is diagnosed with the virus.

The Bluetooth tokens are mainly for seniors and children who do not have smartphones. The government began distributing the tokens to all residents in September and has shipped 400,000 of the devices so far.

The government's contact-tracing app has already been downloaded by 2.5 million people, over 40% of the nation's population of 5.7 million.

Singapore residents will find it increasingly inconvenient to go out and about without the app or token in the coming weeks, and the number of downloads will inevitably increase.

The government, which estimates at least 70% of the city-state's residents have to use the system to ensure effective contact tracing, plans to accelerate the pace of token distribution.

It says the new system will allow it to more efficiently track and contain the virus.

The current SafeEntry system enables the government to identify people who were at the same places with a diagnosed patient but is not adept at distinguishing those who had close contact with a virus carrier from those who did not.

The government says the privacy of users will be protected. It says data will be stored on the app for only 25 days and handled by a small number of officials.

But more than a few Singaporeans are irked by the mandate. "The Singapore Government is now doubling down by mandating, in practical if not legal terms, the download of their contact-tracing app, '' said Lizzie Osia, a lawyer and an expert on human rights issues. "It's a concern many privacy advocates thought may come to pass, it's disappointing to be proven correct.

"We shouldn't allow a situation to evolve where the government always gets to know more about its citizens, without the public getting the opportunity to hold them accountable for how these policies develop."

A total of 120 contact tracing apps are now in use in 71 countries and territories, according to Top10VPN.com, a leading VPN (Virtual Private Network) review website.

Singapore's penetration rate of over 40% is among the highest in the world, according to the government.

Singapore has reported a total of 58,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. After suffering a rapid surge in cases among foreign workers living in crowded dormitories early on, it has since contained the outbreak. Recently, new confirmed daily cases are often less than 10.

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