Singaporean company’s new tech to police social distancing will raise alarm when people are too closejessie tan
A Singaporean company has developed advanced “eyes in the sky” technology to help police social distancing measures and prevent the spread of Covid-19. Like similar emerging technology, it raises privacy concerns.
New laws in the city state enacted in March under the infectious diseases act punish people who intentionally stand in a queue less than one metre (three feet) away from another person, sit on a fixed seat that has been marked as not to be occupied, or sit less than a metre away from another person in a public place.
Offenders can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to six months, or both.
While the authorities have hired social distancing ambassadors to ensure compliance with the laws, Smart IoT’s new invention – Smart Distancing Sensors on Premise (SDSP) – can also help.
The invention consists of sensors in ceilings that scan crowds and measure the distance between individuals.
IoT, which stands for the internet of things, refers to a system of interrelated mechanical and digital computing devices that can send data over a network without the need for person-to-person or person-to-computer interaction.
Smart IoT’s founder, Scott Fan, says SDSP can be installed at venues where people are typically grouped closely together.
The system will trigger an alert if, say, people in a queue at a supermarket checkout or waiting for a table outside a restaurant are less than a metre apart. A laser light beamed from the sensor can guide the offender back to a safe distance.
People enforcing social distancing rules on the premises will also get a signal “to ensure the offender mends his ways”, Fan says.
“SDSP can be especially useful for places where employees are exposed to lots of people flow, such as airport customs queues and hotels” as well as shopping malls, food courts and banks, he says.
Smart IoT’s past inventions include a smart helmet to enhance occupational safety, wind-power generation equipment, and a Smart Bra that sends a signal to police when a woman is being attacked.
Singapore’s so-called “circuit breaker” measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus formally ended on June 1. But restrictions including social distancing and closures of high-risk areas including dining venues and retail outlets are still in place.
Singapore has recorded more than 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 26 related deaths.
Fan says while the Covid-19 outbreak is waning in some countries such as China, social distancing is expected to remain “the new normal” around the world for the next two or three years until a vaccine is developed.
“When countries open up their borders or people open their shops, they are taking a risk,” he says, adding that his company’s applications can help control this risk.
Fan has been developing solutions to help enforce social distancing ever since the World Health Organisation announced guidelines in 2009 in response to pandemics including that year’s swine flu outbreak and the 2003 Sars outbreak.
He says SDSP can be used together with smart wearables, including a wristband that monitors a person’s temperature and provides location tracking, for places that need extra protection such as homes for the elderly homes, hospitals and kindergartens.
“For a Covid-19 patient who goes beyond certain zones in a hospital, the wristband will trigger an alert,” he says.
Such wristbands could also be given to people with close ties to a confirmed Covid-19 patient.
“A suspect case … who goes out during the 14-day quarantine will trigger an alert to be sent to officials who are monitoring him. After the quarantine is over, an alert will also be triggered if he is less than a metre away from a person when he is outside the quarantine venue,” Fan says.
He cites other scenarios in which the wristband and SDSP can be used together, including schools when they reopen. If students and staff wear the wristbands and the SDSP is installed, daily temperature checks can be done and social distancing enforced.
With governments increasingly adopting location- and contact-tracing apps to help stem the spread of Covid-19, data scientists and ethicists have raised concerns over privacy, security and surveillance.
However, Lilian Edwards, a professor of law, innovation and society at Newcastle University in Britain, says the adoption of SDSP would not necessarily invade privacy.
Edwards has drafted a law to safeguard citizens’ rights after the British government revealed a National Health Service contact-tracing app to be launched in June.
Her draft law proposes that any restraints the app suggests must be public, legitimate, necessary and proportionate to the public goal of defeating coronavirus, and data-sharing for any purpose beyond defeating the pandemic must require users’ consent.
It also proposes a new commissioner to safeguard against coronavirus should act as a watchdog.
“All the SDSP provides is a warning to the person who gets too near. This does not need to, or seem to, collect any persistent identifiers relating to any persons, so there is no privacy worry,” Edwards says.
The use of Smart IoT’s wristbands and SDSP in combination, though, could produce a permanent ongoing data record that might be misused, she says.
Anyone adopting the system should first ask if there is any value to having the record of proximity stored at all, she says. “If yes, is there any value for the record to be attached to identifiable persons?”
Edwards adds that balancing individual rights and social good is a political choice, noting Asian countries might have different ideas about that balance than Britain does.
“But I do think people in every country may be worried about the long-term effects of large amounts of data about them being collected by the state and how that mass surveillance might be misused in the future… legal safeguards of some kind will be appropriate for every country.”