Privacy fears grow over Singapore virus tracking

Special Privacy fears grow over Singapore virus tracking
A healthcare worker is vaccinated at Gleneagles hospital during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore January 19, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 January 2021

Privacy fears grow over Singapore virus tracking

Privacy fears grow over Singapore virus tracking
  • TraceTogether uses Bluetooth technology to approximate the user’s distance from other TraceTogether devices

SINGAPORE: Singapore has one of world’s most effective strategies in battling the coronavirus pandemic, but concerns are rising among rights advocates that this is coming at a price, with “unwarranted surveillance” through the government’s contact tracing mechanisms.

With slightly more than 59,100 reported virus infections, the densely populated city-state of nearly 6 million people has had only 29 coronavirus-related deaths.

The low infection and mortality rates have been attributed to the country’s advanced healthcare, rigorous implementation of virus precautions, and technology-powered contact tracing, which Singapore boasts as key to its success.

One of the main tracing mechanisms is TraceTogether, which uses Bluetooth technology to approximate the user’s distance from other TraceTogether devices. When two users are in close proximity, their devices exchange encrypted data that can be decoded by the Ministry of Health if a person tests positive for COVID-19 to trace anyone nearby who might have been exposed to the disease.

On the rollout of TraceTogether in March 2020, the government said the app’s decrypted data would be used only for contact tracing purposes. However, earlier this month, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office announced that if a serious criminal offense has been committed, police will be able to use the data as well. Authorities say that more than 70 percent of Singaporean citizens use the app.

“The government was unequivocal when it introduced the TraceTogether app last year that this was simply for contact tracing connected to public health measures. They basically lied to the Singaporean people,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Arab News last week.

“This is a government with a long history of unwarranted surveillance of its citizens. There is serious concern about the invasion of privacy in Singapore. The people have the right to be worried about this,” he added, explaining that the government should firewall TraceTogether information from law enforcement officers.

“It should uphold the original promise made to the Singaporean people,” Robertson said.

For Singaporean citizens, using the app is supposedly voluntary, but in practice anyone entering a public venue — shopping malls, restaurants, clinics — must either have a TraceTogether app or token, or scan a QR code and register with their name and identity document number.

Migrant workers, however, are required to have the tracing app on their phones, after a surge of infections in April last year led the government to put their dormitories on lockdown, restricting the movement of almost 300,000 people.

Substandard conditions at the workers’ dorms resulted in them making up some 90 percent of all coronavirus cases in Singapore, according to HRW’s 2021 World Report released on Jan. 13.

“It’s discriminatory and it is not voluntary — if you want to leave the dormitories as migrant workers, you need to have that app,” Robertson said.

“Employers are being pressured by the government to make sure that all migrant workers have this app on their phone. Basically, people are being tracked.”

Prof. James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said that Singapore had developed the app because it needed a “very efficient tracing system.”

“Singapore is very strict and maintains strong surveillance of the population, so it is easy for them to do contact tracing and to isolate people, especially foreign workers, where they can control their movements,” Chin told Arab News.

“Of course, in the West, it would be difficult due to privacy concerns,” he said. “Privacy concern is not a big deal for the Singapore government.”