Government Plans Bluetooth Covid-19 Contact Tracing, Geofencing Self-Quarantine App

MOSTI moots Bluetooth tech for MySejahtera to identify close contacts and a new self-quarantine app with geofencing tech — which may be piloted in the Greater Klang Valley this month — that will sound an alarm if Covid-19 cases step outside their home.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 2 — The government is working on incorporating Bluetooth technology into MySejahtera to digitise Covid-19 contact tracing, as well as geofencing in a separate mobile app for home quarantine supervision.

Ng Kang Siong — principal researcher of corporate technology from MIMOS Berhad, an agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) — said Bluetooth short-range communication technology in people’s mobile phones would enable authorities to know if one was in close proximity with a Covid-19 patient. Generally, smartphones have Bluetooth.

He was explaining to the health, science and innovation parliamentary special select committee the contact tracing framework that is being developed by MIMOS together with the Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia (JUPEM), the Ministry of Health (MOH), and the MySejahtera team.

Currently, contact tracing to identify individuals that an infected person was in contact with is done manually by interviewing the Covid-19 case. The government’s ubiquitous MySejahtera app presently only contains a check-in or check-out feature that requires users to scan QR codes upon entering a premise.

“If you want to stretch further, we will use the Bluetooth without the GPS just to find out whether you are in close proximity without a location information. So the Bluetooth was designed without a location information,” Ng said at an October 4 meeting with the Dewan Rakyat health, science and innovation committee, based on meeting transcripts published in the committee’s 634-page “Transitioning from Pandemic to to Endemic Covid-19 Safely and Sustainably” report that was tabled in Parliament yesterday.

A slide presented by MOSTI at the October 4 meeting stated an October 31 timeline on incorporating a Bluetooth contact tracing feature into MySejahtera.

Due to privacy concerns, Ng told the health, science and innovation parliamentary special select committee that MIMOS would insert “treatment technology” to prevent third parties from accessing phone data via Bluetooth.

“So, we have to design the system where is only visible to the authority but not to a casual system that is able to detect where you are. So what we have done is according to the exposure notification by Android, Apple and Google, the numbers keep changing every 15 minutes. So that whoever gather the information will not be able to link back who is the person.

“So, that is to make sure that your information is not leak to people outside of the system. Secondly, it will not be disclosing any other information other than a random number. These are the technology features we have to make sure that we put in place.”

Ng added that MIMOS was also planning to create a separate mobile app, using geofencing technology, specifically to monitor Covid-19 cases self-isolating at home by working with JUPEM that has records of people’s address versus location. JUPEM can do mapping to identify quarantine locations. To enable this app, location services on one’s phone must be turned on.

“The reason why we don’t want to merge into MySejahtera is that we don’t want to give a feeling that to the general public, that MySejahtera also keeps track of every single GPS location.

“So, that’s why we put it in the separate app. This app is only for those tested positive. GPS will be turned on, so that we will track them for the next 14 days.”

This new self-quarantine app will sound an alarm on one’s phone and the server should a person on home quarantine move outside the perimeters of their residence.

“So, it’s not for the general public – we don’t want people to get panic lah that the government is tracing their whereabouts.”

Ng Kang Siong, principal researcher of corporate technology at MIMOS Berhad

MOSTI’s slide indicated a November timeline for a pilot project with the new geofencing self-quarantine app in the Greater Klang Valley.

When committee chairman Dr Kelvin Yii asked if a new law needed to be passed to ensure that data on the new self-quarantine app is removed after 14 days, Ng said this was not necessary. Although the government is not bound by the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), Ng expressed the government’s commitment to ensure that data is not disclosed to unintended parties.

“The current law is sufficient to say that you need to collect the data and you will only retain it to the limit that you need it,” Ng said. “Anything above that, you shouldn’t be collecting it. It’s part of the privacy principle. One of it is data minimisation.”

He added that MySejahtera data is currently kept in Ali Cloud hosted in Malaysia. The government plans to move the data to the Pusat Data Sektor Awam hosted by MAMPU.

The government is also exploring a Bluetooth dongle option as a “technical lead”, without requiring a mobile phone, besides Bluetooth functionality in MySejahtera. However, Ng said no timeline has been set for the dongle as MOSTI did not originally intend for this option. Feasibility studies are currently underway for the dongle.

Both Dr Yii and Sibuti MP Lukanisman Awang Sauni, who is a member of the parliamentary committee, similarly expressed reservations about a Bluetooth dongle to track close contacts of Covid-19 cases — which is used in Singapore — due to concerns on its feasibility in large rural populations and procurement.

Besides the Bluetooth technology in MySejahtera and the creation of a new self-quarantine app, MOSTI is also looking at adding artificial intelligence and big data analytics into the HIDE system to produce more accurate predictions of coronavirus hotspots based on Bluetooth contact tracing. HIDE currently uses MySejahtera check-in data.

The government also plans to enhance MOH’s internal dashboard based on information gleaned from Bluetooth contact tracing and analysis of the data, besides enabling manual contact tracers to feed data back into the dashboard for analysis again.

“So, we are trying to merge the manual together with the automated system, so that these two systems can work hand in hand. The automated system will provide information to the contact tracer. The contact tracer, through his manual call, is able to gather extra information, not captured, and they can plow the information back,” Ng said.

The October 4 meeting with the health, science and innovation committee was attended by Ng, MOSTI deputy secretary-general (planning and culture) Nagulendran Kangayatkarasu, and MOSTI division deputy secretary (strategic technology and S&T application) Siti Salmiah Dimyati.

According to transcripts in the Dewan Rakyat committee’s report, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin told the health, science and innovation committee at a September 28 meeting that the government wanted to ensure that the Bluetooth contact tracing system was working first before investing in a token system, or a separate Bluetooth device to track close contacts of Covid-19 cases, like the one used by Singapore.

“If once we find that it works and it’s quite seamless in terms of integration, for those without smartphone, we will request from Treasury for some allocation to buy the token.”

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