Singapore has been one of the world leaders in controlling the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning; After some initial spikes from April to mid-July, the country has limited new cases to the single digits most days in the past four months and has experienced just 29 of the 1.9 million total deaths worldwide. . A big part of that success was the early and aggressive launch of contact tracing efforts. The country was one of the first in the world to implement an application for this purpose, called TraceTogether, and its voluntary public acceptance was key.
Part of the public’s willingness to use the app, which was eventually required to enter certain public and private spaces, was due to assurances from the Minister of Education and the Minister of Foreign Affairs that it would not be used for anything other than to track contacts. That position was suddenly reversed with the recent announcement that TraceTogether data had been used in a murder investigation. The government has backtracked on its initial statements, and the head of the national contact tracing initiative claimed that it “had not considered” a core part of the country’s Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
Confidence in TraceTogether Shaken?
Blocking and contact tracing measures require trust in the government, something that Singaporean citizens have at relatively high levels compared to other nations. Still, the voluntary acceptance of TraceTogether was very slow. In May, only 20% of the population used it. Since then, that number has risen to about 78%, driven in large part by a growing number of stores and workplaces requiring you to enter.
These contact tracing measures are relatively strict compared to other countries. Some, notably the United States, do not yet have any kind of national digital system. Low confidence in the government is a major obstacle in these places; It could also be something that comes up in Singapore given that the voluntary uptake of TraceTogether was very low before the mandatory elements were introduced.
That reliance on the contact tracing system may be eroded by the sudden reversal of government policy at the start of the new year, with Foreign Minister (and TraceTogether program manager) Vivian Balakrishnan attributing the change to a lack of accounting. of Section 20 of the Criminal Law. Procedure code. The code states that law enforcement agencies can “order the production of any document or other thing” that is deemed necessary as part of a criminal investigation. That, at least according to authorities, includes contact tracing data that was supposed to be off the table. Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament on January 4: “The Singapore Police are empowered … to obtain any data, including data from TraceTogether, for criminal investigations.”
Most Singaporeans install the contact tracing app on their smartphones or obtain a special Bluetooth-based token that must be carried away from home. The system uses direct communications between these devices rather than GPS or cell phone networks, giving users a relatively higher level of privacy. Devices are also supposed to be anonymized and automatically dump stored data every 25 days. While it does not appear that the police have the means to casually explore the interactions of all TraceTogether users from a centralized source, investigators can request access to an individual’s data under the terms of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Balakrishnan defended the measure by suggesting that this would only be done in very serious cases. “When lives are at stake, it is not reasonable for us to say that certain kinds of data should be out of the reach of the police. This power, on the part of the police, to access data must be exercised prudently and with the utmost restraint. ”
Maintain a successful contact tracing program
With a total of around 58,000 cases recorded to date, only about 1% of Singapore’s total population of 5.7 million has had Covid-19. That means the TraceTogether program (and related contact tracing efforts) will continue to be vital until the majority of the population has been vaccinated, something that likely won’t happen until mid-2021 at the earliest.
Trust is critical with government planning to enforce TraceTogether to access an even greater range of locations and services in 2021. Massive distribution of wearable contact tracing technology to all remaining residents is planned at some point earlier in the year, followed by an expansion of the existing SafeEntry program to various “higher risk” locations. This is combined with trial programs that allow venues that host certain types of large gatherings, such as weddings and business conferences, to begin reopening. The ultimate goal is to make the program mandatory for all residents at all times, although a date for it has not yet been set.
Public cooperation with law enforcement is also critical to the success of the program, as the government has relied heavily on the Singapore Police Force for basic contact tracing activities such as checking patient movements. diagnosed in public chambers and locating the potential contacts of anyone conducting tests. positive.
The Singapore government has backtracked on its initial assurance that the TraceTogether app will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing. #privacy #respectdata
Some citizens interviewed by the BBC expressed dismay at the news and indicated that they would disable the Bluetooth component of the smartphone app unless it was necessary to enter an area, essentially defeating the purpose of using it to track contacts. Others took things a step further to publicly throw your chips in the trash. Currently, the use of TraceTogether is not required or punishable by law, but it can be somewhat difficult to go through everyday life without it, since you are required to enter grocery stores and use public transportation or taxis.