Lessons from TraceTogether: Citizens are happy to deliver data as long as usage is transparent

Recent revelations that data from Singapore’s landmark TraceTogether app is being used by police “for criminal investigation purposes” have come as a shock to local citizens. The government had rightly encouraged the adoption of the COVID tracker app, with an acceptance rate of 70 percent, so that the app would be effective in keeping people safe. Then, two weeks ago, the TraceTogether privacy statement was updated to clarify that “the Code of Criminal Procedure applies to all data under the jurisdiction of Singapore” and that “TraceTogether data may be used in circumstances where the citizen security is or has been affected. ” This, understandably, shook citizens’ perceptions of TraceTogether and how the government treats their data.

In fact, TraceTogether’s data privacy terms are comparable to many other COVID tracking apps, and overall, Singaporeans have a lot to celebrate about their country’s approach to using technology to combat the spread of COVID. pandemic. By putting TraceTogether’s data terms in context and increasing its transparency with citizens, the government has the opportunity to regain the trust of citizens and even become an exporter of data privacy best practices.

The rush to keep people safe

Importantly, by rapidly implementing TraceTogether, the government was ahead of many other countries in using technology to keep people safe. The March 2020 launch made Singapore one of the first countries in the world to implement such an app. Since a technical framework for COVID tracking apps was introduced in April, only six states in the United States have released apps.

The centralized data model adopted by Singapore is also similar to the approach taken by many other nations. By choosing a centralized model, the Singapore government was able to implement TraceTogether more quickly than most others and use a model that has been shown to keep people safe. As a result, Singapore has been one of the most effective countries in fighting the spread of the pandemic.

While centralized models are fundamentally less private, because one agency will maintain control of the entire data set, many nations have accepted that health care needs prevail over the need for privacy.

Common uncertainty

It is also important to note that the government’s ability to access some TraceTogether data is not unusual. A recent study in the respected scientific journal Nature found that two-fifths of COVID tracking apps do not request permission to access information such as contacts, photos, location data, device identification, call information, the WiFi connection or the microphone. It is concerning that only 16 of the 50 apps surveyed indicated that user data would remain anonymous, encrypted and protected and will be transmitted online and reported only in an aggregated format.

For example, the UK’s COVID tracking app gives healthcare providers access to user data and concerns have been raised that the data will be stored indefinitely. In the US, research has shown that the large number of applications developed by US healthcare providers are “continually collecting and processing highly confidential personally identifiable information, such as health information, location, and direct identifiers. “. Finally, while Australia prohibited the collection of data for purposes other than contact tracing, initial confusion and uncertainty led to slow uptake of the application.

Therefore, it is important for Singaporeans to understand that many applications used globally to keep people safe are not completely transparent, and in the rush to keep people safe, many organizations were not completely transparent. on how the data is used.

Transparency is key

People are understandably sensitive to organizations knowing more about them than they would like. But people also understand that, to access the free services they love, some of their data may be passed on to advertisers. The old joke that ‘if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product’ hasn’t discouraged people from joining services like Facebook, which has seen exponential user growth since launch. According to Statista, 2.7 billion people use Facebook, a number that has grown remarkably steady since the company surpassed 1 billion users in 2012.

However, you only have to look at the uproar Facebook caused in January when it updated WhatsApp’s terms of service to indicate that data from private conversations would be used to report ads on other Facebook platforms, to see the value people put to it. gives transparency. The change led to a 4,200% increase in user growth for the rival app Signal.

In fact, recent proprietary research from ForgeRock suggests that many Singaporeans are laissez-faire about the use of their data by others. Only 28 percent of 25 to 34 year olds and 35 percent of 35 to 44 year olds reported that keeping their data away from third parties was a top concern when downloading a new app.

Establishing trust from the start

ForgeRock research suggests that Singaporeans are not averse to providing access to their data, as long as they are told in advance what it will be used for. The clamor for TraceTogether provides a lesson in the importance of transparency when talking to people about how their data will be used. This will only become more crucial in the future. The ForgeRock research also found that young people were much more concerned about data privacy, with those between the ages of 18 and 24 being among the two age groups most concerned about data privacy.

Singaporeans are not averse to providing access to their data, as long as they are told in advance what it will be used for. #privacy #respectdata

There are a few prominent initiatives that put transparency at the center of consumer digital interactions. Apple’s new iOS 14 provides users with visual notifications when apps use other apps (such as the camera), while the European GDPR and Singapore PDPC give the user control and ownership of their own data. People are only going to get more used to the idea that their data is their identity. Whether you are a government trying to keep people safe or a company trying to onboard new customers, transparency is therefore crucial to attracting people.

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