Singapore Can Curb Covid and Crime With Your Data

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How much personal information are you prepared to surrender to stay safe and healthy? Probably more than you realized after downloading that contact-tracing app last year, judging by a new law in Singapore. That might wind up being an acceptable trade-off.

Parliament passed a law Tuesday that allows police to use Covid-19 tracing data in some criminal investigations, formalizing authorities’ use of legal powers. When the government’s smartphone app TraceTogether was introduced last year, ministers said information would be used only to track the spread of infections. 

Privacy concerns started emerging in January, when parliamentary questioning revealed that the app could be used for this purpose. Worried this revelation might dissuade uptake — or simply encourage users to disable the app — the government said use of data would be limited to seven serious offenses, including murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the foreign minister who is also in charge of Singapore’s smart-technology program, framed the U-turn as a safeguard: “For people who are angry or disappointed at my mistake, you are entitled to do that, but don’t deprive yourself and your loved ones of the protection from this system,” he told parliament Tuesday.  

The government made the reopening of the economy dependent on widespread adoption of TraceTogether, among other measures. About 80% of residents are now using the app, officials estimate. With digital sign-ins mandatory at office buildings, cafes, schools, stores and clinics, what happens to this information is of significant public interest. 

Singapore has done well to contain the coronavirus. Kids are in class, malls are busy and traffic is congested at rush hour. The surge of infections shutting down activity elsewhere in the world has largely been avoided. This success largely comes down to the republic’s strictly enforced rules, including wearing masks and social distancing. (The government did have a two-month lockdown last year at huge economic cost.) 

Big data is everywhere in the city-state. For example, visits to the foot-massage joints that dot shop rows and public-housing estates require you to produce a government-issued identity card. These contain fingerprints and other biometric details, and are a passport to daily life. You need one to get a bank account, credit card, phone and to enroll your kids in school. I was shocked when I first moved here, and cable guys demanded my identification number over the phone. In the U.S., few people would dare ask for your entire social security number that way.

Singaporeans are proud of how safe their country is, and rightly so. Being nearly crime-free is also a big draw for employees of multinational companies (and their young families), whom successive leaders have wooed. Limiting the app’s use would jeopardize public well-being and hamstring the police, said legislators from the ruling People's Action Party. If TraceTogether is the only way to solve a kidnapping, it would be unconscionable not to use it, was another line of argument. Some members of parliament even complained the list of eligible crimes wasn't long enough. Alex Yam, a PAP lawmaker, said it was akin to “ignoring a bloody knife” at a crime scene.

Singapore’s main opposition party walked a line between chastising the government and supporting the bill. There was never any real doubt it would pass; the PAP has a big majority and has formed every government in the republic’s history. Pritam Singh, leader of the Workers Party, did question whether “convenience for the police” is a sufficient reason to compromise public trust, especially during a pandemic. While conceding “disquiet, unhappiness and even cynicism” about the government’s admissions, he nevertheless backed the changes. Singh urged people who hadn’t done so to download the app. 

Perhaps residents see loss of privacy as palatable, given the provision of efficient services. For foreigners in Singapore, accepting some constraints on behavior, public comment and liberty is part of the unofficial bargain. It's also part of life in the 21st century, no matter where you are. “Many people have Facebook and Google accounts, so how can you be worried?” asked Ilan Noy, chair in the economics of disasters and climate change at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Social media companies tend to know a lot more about people than ministries, he said in a telephone interview. 

If people are presented with a trade-off between surveillance and lockdown, they will likely opt for surveillance, said Noy, who co-authored a 2019 paper for the Asian Development Bank on behavioral responses to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. If it’s a choice between lockdown and the risk of infection, lockdowns will win out, he said.

Given these are society’s most pressing concerns right now, broadening use of TraceTogether makes sense. When the cloud of Covid eventually lifts, who knows, crime may once again be considered a more menacing threat. At that point, Singapore theoretically will have phased out use of the app. But then there's always Covid-21 to worry about.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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