Surprise! Singapore Backtracks On Privacy Pledge And Opens Contact Tracing Data To Police

from the making-contact dept

Singapore has a relatively long history when it comes to using modern technology to create a surveillance state within its borders. The monitoring of use of the internet and other digital services goes way back to 2002, sold to the citizenry as both an anti-terrorism bulwark and a tool to keep hate-speech at bay. Of course, though the populace as a whole seemed to take to the government's use of surveillance for a variety of reasons, Singapore also has a history of clamping down on any speech it simply doesn't like.

At present, of course, surveillance of populations has increased worldwide, though in the form of contact tracing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. All sorts of technology and tools have been rolled out to accomplish effective contract tracing, with unfortunately far less emphasis put on securing the data of participants. It should go without saying that if contact tracing is going to be effective, it needs to be widely trusted and adopted. Any breaks in the links of the contact chain render it worthless. Which is probably why Singapore had assured its citizenry, when rolling out its plan for contact tracing using the TraceTogether app, that any data collected from it would be secured and used only for tracing purposes.

In its efforts to ease privacy concerns, the Singapore government had stressed repeatedly that COVID-19 data would "never be accessed unless the user tests positive" for the virus and was contacted by the contact tracing team. Personal data such as unique identification number and mobile number also would be substituted by a random permanent ID and stored on a secured server.

Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, also had insisted the TraceTogether token was not a tracking device since it did not contain a GPS chip and could not connect to the internet. He further noted that all TraceTogether data would be encrypted and stored for up to 25 days, after which it would be automatically deleted, adding that the information would be uploaded to the Health Ministry only when an individual tested positive for COVID-19 and this could be carried out only by physically handing over the wearable device to the ministry, Balakrishnan said.

The promises went on, including assurances that a very small number of contact tracers would have access to the data. This, again, was done specifically to increase the adoption in use of the app in order to get the pandemic in Singapore under control. The interests of public health ruled supreme, said the government.

Those interests lasted mere months, however, now that the Singapore government has announced that law enforcement would get access to the data for any number of reasons, including for use in open investigations.

However, the Singapore government now has confirmed local law enforcement will be able to access the data for criminal investigations. Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the Singapore Police Force can obtain any data and this includes TraceTogether data, according to Minister of State for Home Affairs, Desmond Tan. He was responding to a question posed during parliament Monday on whether the TraceTogether data would be used for criminal probes and the safeguards governing the use of such data.

He noted that "authorised police officers" may invoke the Criminal Procedure Code to access TraceTogether data for such purposes as well as for criminal investigation, but this data would, otherwise, be used only for contact tracing and to combat the spread of COVID-19.

It's hard to imagine any such assurances finding much purchase given the one-eighty the government already performed on its previous promises. Privacy advocates are crying foul, with ProPrivacy's Ray Walsh noting that the Singapore government appears poised to mandate the use of TraceTogether while also opening that data up to law enforcement, a scenario sure to breed distrust of the app during a global pandemic.

"This is extremely concerning considering that the government is planning to make the use of the TraceTogether app mandatory for all citizens," he said. "Test and trace systems forced on the general public for the purposes of preventing the spread of the pandemic have no right being used to create an extensive surveillance network, and it is extremely unnerving to see a soon-to-be mandatory app being exploited in this way."

As Churchill said, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." One hopes that, when he said it, Churchill didn't have the creation of a mass surveillance tool excused by a pandemic in mind.

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Filed Under: contact tracing, covid, law enforcement, privacy, singapore, surveillance


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 5 Jan 2021 @ 9:41pm

    ... I'm sorry, confirmed liars said what?

    ... adding that the information would be uploaded to the Health Ministry only when an individual tested positive for COVID-19 and this could be carried out only by physically handing over the wearable device to the ministry, Balakrishnan said.

    -30 Seconds later-

    He noted that "authorised police officers" may invoke the Criminal Procedure Code to access TraceTogether data for such purposes as well as for criminal investigation, but this data would, otherwise, be used only for contact tracing and to combat the spread of COVID-19.

    'No really, we pinky-promise that we're not lying this time, we definitely won't use the data we are mandating people provide for other stuff... really!'

    Well, nice of the Singapore government to make undeniably clear that they consider widespread surveillance too tempting to pass up, even at the cost of undermining public trust when that can and will lead to increased infections and deaths, really makes their priorities crystal clear for all to see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2021 @ 9:14am

      Re: ... I'm sorry, confirmed liars said what?

      the cost of undermining public trust

      Never really enters the equation when you talk about psychopaths who have 1984 surveillance ambitions and wet dreams about mind controlling their populous like puppets. These psychopaths don't care if you trust them. They care about whether or not you follow their orders without question.

      really makes their priorities crystal clear for all to see.

      Yep. Singapore slaves have a choice, constant monitoring by authorities or death via plague. Which I'm sure will be replaced once the current plague is dealt with. (Oh, not the monitoring. The official reason for the monitoring.) Either way it seems that as long as the slaves are kept in check by something, their government doesn't care how it's being done.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 6 Jan 2021 @ 4:56am

    Churchill said, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." One hopes that, when he said it, Churchill didn't have the creation of a mass surveillance tool excused by a pandemic in mind.

    One could hope but then again this was the same man that sent thousands to their deaths to keep the secret of having recovered a decryption tool despite assurances that his codebreakers had cracked the enemy's encryption.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Disneyland with the Death Penalty

    As William Gibson once famously wrote, Singapore is Disneyland with the Death Penalty

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