Chong Kai Xiong is usually so conscious of his privacy that he refuses to use ride-hailing apps like Grab or Gojek. An IT professional who has done independent research on surveillance technologies, he says he knows how hard it is to make databases secure, and he worries about hacks and leaks.
But now that the novel coronavirus pandemic has made opting out of location tracking practically impossible in Singapore, he has been forced to compromise. The country’s approach to containing the virus has included the widespread use of digital check-ins via a system called SafeEntry. Individuals must check in with their ID and phone number before they enter malls, shops, restaurants, workplaces, or schools. This information is fed back to a centralized database, which the government then uses for contact tracing.
Naturally, Chong isn’t happy about it. “Every time I have lunch or shop outside, I am forced to recognize the gaze of the state, surveilling my whereabouts,” he says.
The Singaporean government has leaned heavily on technology in its response to the pandemic. In March, the government launched its TraceTogether app, touting it as the “world’s first national digital contact-tracing effort.” The system uses Bluetooth to track people as they move and interact with one another; if two users are within two meters of each other for thirty minutes or more, it records the contact. (The government provides people without smartphones with tokens.) The code that the app runs on was open source, so other countries can adapt it for their own uses, as Australia did to develop its own contact-tracing system.
The authorities claim that such technologies have greatly strengthened their contact-tracing efforts. In early November, the health minister said that 25,000 close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases had been identified through TraceTogether, of which 160 eventually tested positive. The country reported zero cases of community transmission most days in November.
Despite these successes, the imposition of more intrusive data collection technology has unnerved privacy advocates, who worry that the pandemic will be used to justify the surveillance of citizens without consideration of the long-term consequences, and without sufficient checks and balances.
Those concerns look increasingly well-founded. When Parliament reopened in January 2021, Desmond Tan, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Home Affairs, said that the police would also be able to access TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The privacy statement on the TraceTogether website, which had previously stated that collected data would “only be used solely for contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to COVID-19,” was amended shortly afterwards.
“It’s not that, in principle, I disagree with contact tracing. It’s something that society could decide to do because there’s a trade-off with giving up privacy to ensure better health. But we didn’t make that decision democratically,” says Tan Zhi-xuan, a Singaporean who researches artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think society has given up a lot in the name of efficiency and convenience.”
The enthusiastic adoption of data-collection technology is entirely in keeping with Singapore’s model of governance and view of itself as a high-tech “Smart Nation” at the forefront of global innovation.
“Singapore is a very techno-optimistic nation,” says Monamie Bhadra Haines, an assistant professor of global science and technology studies at Nanyang Technological University. “Technology and technological solutionism is seen to be the approach that they take to solve all sorts of deeply political problems.”
In 2018, Singapore announced a pilot project to install facial-recognition cameras on lampposts, alongside other sensors it claimed would be beneficial for analysing the movement of crowds or investigations in the event of a terror attack. The country is also working on a satellite-based road-toll system that would charge drivers based on how far they travel, though they’ve temporarily put that plan on hold.
In September, the government announced that facial verification will be integrated into the existing digital identity system, which allows citizens to access government services online. A month later, the immigration authority said it was replacing fingerprint scans with facial and iris scans as the main mode of identity verification at the border.
There is rarely much public opposition to these initiatives. Singaporeans routinely report a high level of trust in the government; the country’s politics is dominated by a single powerful political party that exerts significant influence over the media. New technologies and processes are presented to the public as faits accomplis, leaving little space for public discussion.
“It’s also framed in this very positive way, like, ‘This will speed us through the border faster,’” says Hallam Stevens, a historian of technology at Nanyang Technological University. “There’s a kind of lack of debate about this partly because it’s going through so fast.”
The government maintains it is not using the TraceTogether system to actively track its citizens and that the data will only be used for Covid-19 contact tracing—although as it stated in parliament, the police will be able to request data, and some academics and activists are concerned about the underlying trade-off — convenience in exchange for privacy and power.
Singapore’s government and public agencies are exempt from the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which regulates the collection and use of data in the private sector. Other laws do govern data collection in the public sector, and the government says their standards are comparable to the PDPA’s. But privacy advocates say these laws don’t sufficiently empower individual users, and that citizens have no rights to redress or accountability if they aren’t followed.
“The individual has no remedy for misuse of data,” says Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a privacy lawyer who practiced in Singapore before relocating to Germany.
Others worry that relying heavily on technology could worsen structural inequities in Singaporean society. As Tan points out, facial-recognition systems have been shown to generate different results for different ethnic groups, which could, for example, lead to racial minorities’ being subjected to extra questioning and scrutiny during immigration checks.
TraceTogether will soon be mandatory for all of Singapore’s residents — but it already is for the country’s population of migrant workers. More than 450,000 have been given wearable contact-tracing tokens so that their movements and interactions can be logged even if they don’t have their phones on them while at work.
As Haines puts it, “If [the debate about technology is] only narrowly framed [in terms of] convenience and efficiency and speed, then what happens to problems like inequality, or power asymmetries, or any of the other kinds of deeply moral stuff that we care about?”
There are signs that Singaporeans are nervous about handing over their data. Two months after TraceTogether was launched, only 25% of the population had voluntarily downloaded it. A local polling company, Blackbox Research, found that 45% of respondents chose not to install TraceTogether because of concerns about “the government tracing their movements.” In October, the government had to remind people that tampering with TraceTogether tokens was illegal, after reports emerged of individuals trying to subvert or disable their tracking capabilities.
Chong, long used to being an outlier when it comes to apprehension over data collection in Singapore, says he has been encouraged by the recent increase in public awareness. But he’s still keeping his expectations low because he thinks the burgeoning resistance isn’t enough to put the brakes on it.
“Unless people start to band together and question these [Smart Nation] initiatives, I think [the government is] just going to push ahead. There are benefits to these technologies, but there needs to be some sort of debate about the trade-offs.”