Singapore Is Putting Trackers on Some Incoming Travelers. Should Other Countries Do the Same?

To monitor incoming travelers required to quarantine at home amid the pandemic, Singapore and other Asian countries have turned to monitoring devices. Experts don't think it'll work elsewhere.
August 11, 2020, 9:24am
singapore airport
A passenger waits in the departure hall at Changi International Airport in Singapore on June 8, 2020, as Singapore prepares to reopen its borders after shutting them to curb the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Photo credit: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP

Some travelers entering Singapore will now leave Changi Airport with their luggage, a new passport stamp—and a wearable location tracking device.

As of Tuesday, August 11, a new coronavirus monitoring system has gone into effect, ensuring that incoming travelers who are required to quarantine at home for 14 days remain in isolation.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, all incoming travelers were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival at state-sanctioned facilities. Now, the Singaporean government is allowing citizens, long-term residents, and those on temporary work visas returning from a select list of countries to serve out their quarantine period from home, rather than in a state-appointed facility.

However, the new rules come with a catch—those serving out their quarantine from home are required to don a Bluetooth-powered tracking device to ensure they’re remaining at home.

According to the government, the tracking device will be issued at border checkpoints after immigration clearance. Any attempt by quarantining travelers to tamper with the device or leave their place of residence during the stay-at-home period will trigger an alert to authorities.

Those who fail to comply with the measures in place risk a fine of up to S$10,000 ($7,300) or up to six months in prison. The government has also threatened to revoke visas and bar visitors from returning to Singapore in the future.

While the idea of a tracking device may sound intrusive to some, the Singaporean government insists that the devices do not store any personal data and that only authorized government officials will have access to the tracking data “for the purposes of monitoring and investigation.”

It appears that Singaporeans are willing to sacrifice some level of personal privacy in order to manage the nation’s outbreak. A study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies in May found that just under half of Singaporeans residents would be willing to have their cellphone data tracked without their consent in order to help monitor the pandemic spread.

But would the idea of electronically tagging incoming travelers work in other places that are seeing significant spikes in coronavirus cases?

In Asia, similar tracking methods have been trialed in both Hong Kong and in South Korea.

In Hong Kong, the government has required all incoming travelers to quarantine for 14 days and wear a wristband with a scannable QR code. The idea was that the app would work alongside its tracking app, called StayHomeSafe, to ensure that people complied with the quarantine restrictions. However, the technology has not proven fail-proof.

South Korea rolled out a similar smartphone-enabled wristband to stop people from violating quarantine rules, though the mobile app it linked to was found in July to have serious security flaws that allowed hackers to tamper with the data, The New York Times reported. The security lapses have since been fixed in the latest version of the app.

The Harvard Business Review noted in April that some places in Asia, including South Korea and Hong Kong, have been largely successful in curbing their coronavirus outbreaks. In its reporting, the Review attributed early success to a “collectivist spirit [that] may encourage the civic-minded embrace of and more willing compliance with governments’ infection control.”

In addition, the magazine noted that these nations have deployed data collection technology to track coronavirus infections, noting that privacy issues are “more contentious in Western democracies than in the more collectivist societies of East Asia.”

On the deployment of similar technologies in the West, the Review said that “deeply entrenched Western liberal values, such as the expectation of privacy, consent, and the sanctity of individual rights” would likely compete with the technocratic approach taken in East Asia.

“America is America,” Ronald Kouchi, president of the Hawaii state senate, told Reuters in May. “There are certain rights and freedoms.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to enforcing quarantine in the US

As of Tuesday, August 11, the US has recorded over 5 million coronavirus infections and more than 163,000 deaths—more than any other country in the world. According to ABC News, millions of international travelers poured into the U.S. early on in the pandemic, which may have attributed to the proliferation of the virus.

In the United States, mandatory quarantine periods are enforced through “fines or imprisonment,”  according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are authorized to enforce federal quarantine orders.

But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to monitoring quarantine compliance in the US. Some states have discussed the use of house arrest monitoring technology—like ankle bracelets and location trackers—to battle COVID-19, but according to Reuters, officials wondered if a large scale implementation would be possible without a court order.

In Hawaii, for example, out-of-state visitors were found to have disregarded the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine after posting photos of themselves at the beach. Inspired by South Korea, the state floated the idea of tracking incoming travelers, Reuters said, but the idea was eventually dismissed due to privacy concerns.

Scott Leibrand, a US-based medical technology expert and founder of the CoEpi Project, told VICE News on August 5 that while the technology exists, its implementation faced political and legal roadblocks.

“Given the political climate in the US, I don't see anything more stringent than self-quarantine being enforced in anything but the most egregious cases,” he said.

“Public health officials can get a court to issue a quarantine advisory, but that requires going before a judge and is considered a last resort.”

Leibrand said that rather than forcing a tracking device on incoming travelers, it’s far more likely that local jurisdictions will release their own contact tracing apps. They might encourage new arrivals to install the app, but due to Apple and Google restrictions on Bluetooth systems for contact tracing, such an app would not be allowed to track a user's location, he added.

Jeff Levin-Scherz, a Health Policy and Management assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told VICE News on August 5 that the Trump administration has placed the responsibility of managing local outbreaks to individual states.

“The US federal government has clearly delegated coronavirus response to the states,” he said, “so I think it's more likely that we'll see state-level efforts to use technology to enforce self-quarantines,” he said.

Levin-Scherz added that the current high rate of new infections in the US shows that local efforts to reduce community transmission are “inadequate.” According to Levin-Scherz, digital tools “could help us scale” contact tracing and quarantine, but such programs would need to address widespread privacy concerns.

Evan Benjamin, chief medical officer of Ariadne Labs and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told VICE News on August 5 that quarantine tracking technology is not a current priority in the United States.

“The US needs to prioritize fighting the COVID currently within the US already with better adherence to basic public health approaches of wearing masks in public, physical distancing, routine hygiene, testing and tracing,” he said.

“Until we deal with COVID already circulating within the US, we will not be successful in controlling the virus.”

Australia faces similar privacy hurdles

Australian experts agree that implementing tracking technology in Australia could face similar challenges due to concerns over personal privacy and government interference. But overcoming these challenges may be possible.

As of August 11, Australia has recorded over 21,000 coronavirus cases, with over 300 reported in the last 24 hours. The most recent spike in cases in the state of Victoria has been linked to an outbreak at a public housing complex and from a quarantine hotel where a contract worker allegedly had sex with an infected guest.

Deborah Lupton, professor at the Center for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales, told VICE News on August 6 that it would not surprise her if the state of Victoria brings in digital monitoring tools to control its spread that has left much of the state under strict lockdown.

“The Premier of that state has announced a state of emergency, giving the Victorian governor greater policing powers to enforce quarantine,” she said, adding that such a measure would be “much less accepted” in other states under current conditions.

Shariful Islam, a physician-scientist at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at  Deakin University, told VICE News on August 6 that tracking technology could even be useful among travelers not only entering the country but also moving from one State to another.

Still, concerns about the public reception of such technology remain.

Craig Mudge, an Australian technology expert and managing partner of information technology consulting firm Pacific Challenge, told VICE News on August 6 that while a quarantine tracking device would be helpful in stopping COVID-19 transmission in Australia, he warned that it must be carefully designed with encryption safeguards in order to satisfy safety concerns.

“Singapore has social structures and traditions in place that make this kind of surveillance and control a little easier to accept,” he said.

Photo credit: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP​