Singapore’s police now have access to contact tracing data | MIT Technology Review
Contact tracing apps and systems around the world have faced longstanding questions about privacy and trust.
Mia Sato archive page
January 5, 2021
In Singapore, people standing in a long line, holding smartphones and wearing face masks.
Singapore Press via AP Images
Early mover: TraceTogether is accessed via a smartphone app or a small wearable device, and is used by nearly 80% of Singapore’s 5.7 million residents. It was the first of the major Bluetooth contact tracing apps unveiled in the spring of 2020, and its data is more centralized than the Apple-Google system used in many other places around the world. Singapore ruled out using the Apple-Google system itself because officials there said they wanted more detailed infection information). Participation in contact tracing was once voluntary, but the government rolled that back late last year and there are now mandatory check-ins at most places where people work, shop, and gather.
The country’s approach to the pandemic has been forceful in many ways, not just when it comes to contact tracing technology. For example, people caught without a mask in public face large fines.
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Why it matters: Our Covid Tracing Tracker notes the privacy policies for dozens of apps around the world that notify users of potential exposure to covid-19. Although Singapore’s general attitudes about data privacy may not mirror what’s happening elsewhere, contact tracing apps around the world have raised questions of user privacy since the first were launched last year. The news from Singapore hits on activists’ and ethicists’ concerns about data misuse, and groups like Human Rights Watch have outlined how surveillance could further hurt already marginalized communities.
In a recent essay in the journal Science, bioethicists Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena from ETH Zurich in Switzerland, said that the “piecemeal creation of public trust” was an important missing ingredient if we want more people to use these apps.
Data is still important: This isn’t the first time the use of contact tracing data has intersected with law enforcement. Last July, German restaurants, bars and patrons raised objections when it was reported that police used information collected in contact tracing efforts to track down witnesses in investigations. And in late December 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that prohibits law enforcement and immigration authorities from accessing contact tracing data. Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and New York Immigration Coalition applauded the move.