Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Broken promises: how Singapore lost confidence in the privacy of contact tracing

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For Singaporeans, the covid-19 pandemic has been closely linked to technology: two technologies, to be precise. The first is the QR code, the small black and white squares of which are ubiquitous across the country as part of the SafeEntry contact tracing system rolled out in April and May.

Under SafeEntry, anyone entering a public place (restaurants, stores, malls) must scan a code and register with a name, ID or passport number and phone number. If someone tests positive for covid-19, contact tracers use it to track down those who have come close enough to potentially be infected.

There’s also TraceTogether, an app launched in March 2020. It uses bluetooth to ping nearby contacts; if two users are nearby, their devices exchange anonymous and encrypted user IDs which can be decrypted by the Department of Health if a person tests positive for covid-19.

For those who cannot or do not want to use a smartphone app, the government also offers TraceTogether tokens, small digital key chains that serve the same purpose. And while TraceTogether is currently voluntary, the government has announced that it will merge the two systems, which would make it mandatory to download the app or collect a token.

When the two systems were launched, the public didn’t have much room to discuss the apprehensions: they were seen as necessary to tackle the pandemic, and the Singaporean government acted in typical top-down fashion. He did seek to allay fears, however, by repeatedly assuring Singaporeans that the data collected with this technology would be used. only for contact tracing during the pandemic.

And this is where things went wrong.

Private data used by the police

Earlier this month he appeared that the government’s claim was false. The Home Office confirmed that the data could indeed be consulted by the police for criminal investigations; the day after this admission, a minister revealed that such data had, in fact, already been used in a murder investigation. It quickly became clear that despite what ministers had said previously, Singaporean law meant that it was possible for law enforcement to use TraceTogether data from the start.

These revelations have sparked public anger and criticism, not necessarily because Singaporeans are particularly concerned about their privacy – in fact, state surveillance is largely standardized across the country – but because people have it. feeling like you’ve been subjected to a bait and a change. Many people had reservations about TraceTogether when it launched and only started using it in large numbers after the government said it would soon become mandatory. (According to the co-chair of the covid-19 working group, nearly 80% of Singapore residents have adopted TraceTogether.)

The government has since ad that it will introduce new legislation to limit the use of contact tracing data by law enforcement agencies to investigations into seven specific categories of offenses, including terrorism, murders, kidnappings and trafficking cases. most serious drugs. (The MIT Covid Tracing Tracker Technology Review, which monitors policies related to exposure notification apps around the world, is being updated to reflect this change.)

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