Singapore’s privacy vs security dilemma

JANUARY 10 — This week, it emerged that the police will be able to access information gathered by Singapore’s Trace Together contact tracing system which was rolled out to help in the fight against Covid-19. 

Last June, the system was introduced with Singaporeans being able to opt for either a downloadable app or a wearable token which uses Bluetooth technology to check into a location and communicate with devices in close proximity. 

The system allows disease prevention authorities to know exactly where someone who has contracted the coronavirus went and who they were near to/spent time with.  

These people too can then be tested for Covid-19 and quarantined, allowing the spread of the virus to be swiftly limited.  

It’s a perfectly logical system in terms of combating the virus and many countries have introduced similar tracing systems.  

Singapore’s, however, is perhaps the most widely used with every shop, station, building and office requiring one to check in to gain entry. 

There are alternatives to Trace Together which remains a voluntary system, using your physical ID card for example.   

But these alternatives tend to be less convenient and as a result over 70 per cent of the population is currently using the Trace Together system. 

Such widespread tracking and tracing of an entire population is without historical precedent anywhere. 

And while it does seem to be a logical response to the virus, there have been concerns that it undermines individual liberty and privacy to a considerable degree. 

Should anyone, government agency or otherwise, be able to know where I have been and every person I met on a single day? In fact, Trace Together stores my movement for weeks, so basically my every movement and interaction can be known. 

Facing a backlash when it was suggested Trace Together would be mandatory, the government assured the population that the information would not be stored in a central database — rather it’s only supposed to be available on the device you are carrying, and this can only be accessed once a case is detected and the device itself is analysed/accessed.  

It was stressed the information would only be used for the purpose of fighting Covid-19. 

So, when it emerged that the police would be able to use information from Trace Together when investigating crimes, there was an outcry. 

The state has since clarified that the police still had to access the devices and that they would only do so in the case of serious crimes. 

But the revelation damaged the credibility of the government. 

And yes, it is perfectly rational for the police to want access to this data. 

Data on movements and contacts can prove useful for a range of investigations but that was not the premise of the system. It was not rolled out as a crime fighting service. 

And were it to be used in this capacity it follows that additional legislation will be needed to clarify when and how Trace Together can be used by law enforcement. 

Of course, fitting a tracker on every individual in any nation would reduce crimes, but most societies don’t do this as it is felt this would impinge on personal freedom.  

Fundamentally the premise is that the movements of a citizen not suspected of a crime is his/her private business and should not be known to any authority.  

If the Singapore government wishes to amend this calculus using available technology and argue we would indeed all be safer if we were tracked, then it should say so openly and give people the right to respond. 

The truth is surveillance is already a reality in many nations. Most of us can be tracked by our phones so why pretend to believe in privacy that no longer exists. 

Even in Western democracies it’s quite clear authorities have the capability to track and trace anyone’s movements at any time.  

Where each nation eventually decides to draw the line with this technology and how this line changes is one of the major issues of our time, but the Singapore government must understand that winning people over to new technologies requires trust. 

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said, “We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities and the government.”

On this, I agree with him completely. 

This is why we need transparency. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.