man sitting on bench, facemask, social distancing
© Reuters / Edgar Su
New arrivals to Singapore won't necessarily have to quarantine at a government facility during the pandemic - some, including residents, will receive an electronic monitoring device that will alert authorities if they leave home.

Singapore announced on Monday that it will track incoming travelers coming from a select group of countries - including residents and citizens - with electronic monitoring devices, starting on August 11.

Authorities framed the trackers as a positive for travelers, noting they would allow recipients to self-isolate at home instead of quarantining in a government facility. New arrivals will be ordered to activate the devices upon reaching home, at which point they are programmed to alert the authorities should the user try to leave or tamper with the device.

Comment: This is literally putting people under house arrest for traveling. Sure, it's better than being thrown in a prison for the same 'offence', but tyranny-lite is still tyranny.

It's not clear what kind of device the city-state plans to use, though the announcement hints at something quite a bit beefier than the slimline electronic wristbands Hong Kong deployed in March and South Korea has also adopted. Authorities hinted that recipients are supposed to receive and acknowledge notifications on the device itself, rather than on a smartphone app linked to the device, as is the case in Seoul.

However, the city-state has sought to reassure recipients that the device will not store personal data and does not have the ability to record or store audio or video.

Singapore was one of the first places to adopt tech-enhanced contact-tracing to manage its Covid-19 outbreak, developing a Bluetooth-powered app called TraceTogether which - despite initial fanfare - reportedly failed to attract more than 25 percent of the population (and was quite useless for those without smartphones). Because the app was programmed before Google and Apple rolled out their contact-tracing platform, it doesn't work well on iPhones and is a huge drain on battery life.

Perhaps foreseeing a dim future for the app, Singapore announced in June that it would supplement TraceTogether by distributing wearable contact-tracing devices. The government attempted to allay fears of being tracked by explaining the devices lack GPS chips or internet capability and operate only on a Bluetooth-proximity basis, alerting authorities only if the wearer tests positive for Covid-19.

However, privacy advocates have pushed back against the wearables, noting that it's impossible to tell what the devices are actually doing at any given time. Vivian Balakrishnan, head of Singapore's Smart Nation Initiative, has not ruled out making the wearables compulsory, and some have warned that the government need only add Bluetooth sensors to public places to turn the dongles into de facto GPS trackers. The wearable electronics proposed for new arrivals would seem to fulfill those concerns, especially as they're being rolled out for residents and citizens arriving from outside Singapore, as well as for some foreign nationals.

Singapore has only reported 27 deaths involving the coronavirus, though its case count - 53,051 as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University - is somewhat high for a nation of just 5.1 million people, reflecting the close quarters in which its inhabitants live.