COVID-19 contact-tracing data is fair game for police, Singapore says

January 5, 2021 by No Comments

Enlarge / A user in Singaapore holding the TraceTogether device that can be used for COVID-19 contact tracing in lieu of a smartphone app.

The government of Singapore said this week it has used data gathered for COVID-19 mitigation purposes in criminal investigations, sparking privacy concerns about contact tracing both in Singapore and elsewhere in the world.

Singapore’s contract-tracing app, TraceTogether, has been adopted by nearly 80 percent of the country’s population, according to The Guardian, and Singaporeans are required to use it to enter certain gathering places such as shopping malls.

TraceTogether’s privacy statement originally read, “Data will only be used for Covid-19 contact tracing,” but it was updated this week to add, “Authorised Police officers may invoke Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) powers to request users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The Singapore Police Force is empowered under the CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations,” The Register reports.

“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” Singapore Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan confirmed Monday. Law enforcement have reportedly already used contact-tracing data during the course of a murder investigation.

Singapore has a long history of using pervasive mass surveillance techniques, including laws that allow law enforcement to compel cooperation with “pre-emptive surveillance.” In more recent years, the country has adopted widespread facial recognition technology, which it will soon use for accessing government programs, such as filing tax returns, as well.

Worldwide fears

Contact tracing in the face of COVID-19 has been neither widespread nor effective here in the United States the way it has in many other nations, including Singapore. There are many reasons for the domestic failures, including too few resources for too many cases, with most states hiring nowhere near the number of trained contact tracers they would need to keep up.

But distrust of governmental authority is also rampant in the US. And it’s not isolated to a single group but instead shows up across the whole political spectrum: conspiracy theorists have one set of concerns about the government, conservatives have another, and disproportionately targeted groups such as Black Americans or undocumented immigrants have still more.

Despite strong efforts on the part of both Apple and Google to develop a privacy-sensitive mechanism for widespread exposure notification, use and support are not widespread. Back in April, half of Americans said they wouldn’t trust such an app, and by June that figure was up to 70 percent of US adults.

Nor are Americans afraid only of apps gathering their personal information. The Pew Research Center in October published a report finding that 40 percent of US adults would not be comfortable speaking with a public health official who contacted them about the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, 27 percent would not feel comfortable sharing the names of people they had seen, 22 percent would not share the places they had visited, and a solid 50 percent would not share location data from their mobile phones.

Not without reason

US residents are not necessarily wrong to have broad overall concerns that their sensitive data will be surreptitiously gathered and used by law enforcement without their knowledge. In 2020 alone, for example, both the US Secret Service and US Customs and Border Protection were discovered to be purchasing location data from private entities that would have required a search warrant for the agencies to gather on their own.

Low trust and low participation, in their turn, make contact-tracing programs less useful. Several US governments, in attempts to generate higher participation, explicitly promise that information shared with public health entities for purposes of contact tracing will not be shared with law enforcement. New York just adopted a new law that explicitly protects contact-tracing information from being accessed by police or immigration enforcement agencies.

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