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Pandemic Technology Project

Singapore’s police now have access to contact tracing data

Contact tracing apps and systems around the world have faced longstanding questions about privacy and trust.
January 5, 2021
In Singapore, people standing in a long line, holding smartphones and wearing face masks.
In Singapore, people standing in a long line, holding smartphones and wearing face masks.
Singapore Press via AP Images

The news: Police will be able to access data collected by Singapore’s covid-19 contact tracing system for use in criminal investigations, a senior official said on Monday. The announcement contradicts the privacy policy originally outlined when the government launched its TraceTogether app in March 2020 and is being criticized as a backpedal just after participation in contact tracing was made mandatory. 

Officials said that while according to policy data would “only be used solely for the purpose of contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to covid-19,” the legal reality in Singapore is that police can access any data for criminal investigations—and that contact tracing data was no different. The tracer’s privacy policy was changed on January 4, 2021, to clarify “how the Criminal Procedure Code applies to all data under Singapore’s jurisdiction.” 

Early mover: TraceTogether, which is accessed via a smartphone app or a small wearable device, 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 it stores data in a more centralized way 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. 

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 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, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the New York Immigration Coalition applauded the move.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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