The slippery slope from contact tracing to policing . . .
Singapore’s Minister of State for Home Affairs told parliament on Monday that data generated by the country’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, will be available for “the purpose of criminal investigation.” The minister’s statement stands in stark contrast to previous government promises that TraceTogether data would not be accessed unless the user tested positive for COVID-19 and needed follow-up from contact tracing teams. The app’s own privacy statement also said data would only be accessed and used for contact tracing purposes. However, on the same day as the government announcement, the app’s privacy statement was updated to read that “the Criminal Procedure Code applies to all data under Singapore’s jurisdiction.”
Privacy in the spotlight . . .
Singapore was among the first countries to release a country-wide contract tracing app, with over 40 countries – including Canada – following suit. Close to 80 per cent of Singapore residents have downloaded TraceTogether. The app saw increased usage after migrant workers were required to install it and as the government announced the app would be needed for more daily activities like going to the supermarket. The change to the app’s data governance actualizes concerns highlighted by privacy advocates in Singapore and beyond since the start of the pandemic and has provoked social pushback against TraceTogether’s widespread use.
The erosion of trust . . .
Singapore’s handling of TraceTogether data is sure to have an impact in countries that have rolled out their own contact tracing apps, especially in domestic debates pitting privacy against efforts to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. For instance, Australia made it illegal for police to access contact tracing data from its app back in April 2020. A poll published in July 2020 by Stats Canada showed that over half of Canadians are receptive to digital contact tracing. But of the approximate 44 per cent of respondents unlikely to install such an app, the majority cited privacy concerns as their main reason for opting out. The distrust generated by the Singapore case could have much broader impacts in future infectious disease outbreaks.