Surveillance State: A new normal?

In an attempt to contain and control the global coronavirus pandemic, at least 30 countries around the world have instituted temporary or indefinite measures to identify infected individuals or maintain quarantine orders. However, the invasive nature of these measures have raised concerns over the potential threats to personal privacy.

The most common form of surveillance that has thus far been implemented to battle the pandemic is the use of smartphone location data, which can track population-level movements and even enforce quarantines on individuals. Many countries which have been recognised for some of the most successful responses to COVID-19, such as South Korea and Iceland, made contact tracing a pillar of their approach. In South Korea, for example, the government shares major locations of outbreaks through text-messaging and makes location data public, to help people avoid places where the virus is spreading. However, the technology has also raised privacy and civil liberty concerns.

The trade-off between protecting public health and safeguarding privacy is a complex issue. Governments need information to create containment strategies and to make critical decisions on where to focus resources. At the same time, observers say there is also the potential for that information and data to be used to undermine citizens’ privacy even after the crisis has passed.

Black Dot Research carried out a survey to assess public sentiment with respect to the potential trade-off between privacy and public health, and the impact of integrating technology to fight the current pandemic. The survey compiled answers from 143 respondents, comprising a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities and education backgrounds to best represent the Singapore population.

PRIVACY-PROTECTION DEBATE

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has brought privacy and surveillance concerns to the forefront — from hacked video conferencing sessions to proposals for the tracking of people’s smartphones by the government as a way to limit and prevent the spread of the virus. Most respondents seem to be advocates for the appropriate use of data, with 63% agreeing that privacy and data protection should not get in the way of saving people’s lives. But it’s not an absolute value either – 30% of them still think a pandemic shouldn’t strip citizens of their privacy rights.

ACCEPTABLE DATA VS APPROVED DATA

Recent years have seen unprecedented scrutiny over how apps use data collected from users, so we asked our respondents what they considered to be ‘acceptable data’ for COVID-19 apps to collect. A huge majority (83%) felt test results for COVID-19 were more than sufficient, though the numbers showed a significant decrease among options which included bluetooth status (49%), presumptive positive status (47%), anonymized real-time location tracking data (45%) and body temperature (42%). Those that involve the use of personal and highly sensitive data such as medical history (20%) and biometric data (17%) were not favoured.

Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, uses bluetooth technology to keep a log of nearby devices. If somebody falls sick, that user can choose to upload relevant data to the Ministry of Health (MOH), which then notifies owners of all the devices that were in close proximity of the infected person’s phone. A potential downside of the app is that users must register their phone numbers. However, this is understandable, given that in the event a person is found infected with the disease, the authorities can then easily track down close contacts and impose restrictive measures directly on these individuals as required.

SURVEILLANCE CREEP

Tracking technologies using smartphones could help monitor the development and spread of the virus among the population and quickly prevent new clusters from building up, helping countries emerge from lockdowns. But they also bring daunting privacy risks associated with collecting health data from citizens and tracking movements. More than half of our respondents (62%) reported that the government’s continued ability to track and collect data after a pandemic, and the potential misuse of data for purposes other than safety (59%) are looming concerns.

That lack of trust is understandable given the history of high-profile consumer-data breaches. For instance, in 2014, over 1,500 SingPass accounts (which allow citizens to manage everything from taxes to applications for state subsidies via the government portal) were compromised. Proliferating breaches and the demand from consumers for privacy and control of their own data have led the government to adopt further data protection measures by introducing new initiatives to facilitate the movement and use of data to support innovation, and to strengthen accountability among organisations.

Regardless, the Singapore government still appears to hold a reasonable amount of trust (50%) among our respondents when they were asked who should be able to access data that can precisely indicate human activity to further deter all non-essential movements during the virus outbreak for example.

BENEFITS OF TRACKING

While using such apps are currently voluntary, there has been very little public consultation with citizens on the topic of giving up their personal data. In fact, there has been more published evidence on how effective these apps will be at either identifying infected people who have not been tested or, if widely used, stopping the spread of the disease.

In that vein, we asked our respondents to share with us what they thought could be the biggest benefit of tracking. Some 73% believed it was the availability of contact histories that could be used to impose quarantine orders. Allowing healthy people to avoid community restrictions (38%) and identifying immune status (33%) were less popular in terms of the perceived benefits of tracking apps.

Around 59% of respondents felt that no one should be forced into being tracked, but on the flip side, 34% felt that individuals should not be allowed to opt out because there is no point in tracking if the participation rate is low.

THE DILEMMA OF DATA

Singapore has been experiencing one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in Asia in recent weeks. While the public is advised to stay indoors as much as possible, thousands of safe distancing ambassadors have also fanned out across parks, malls, markets and other public areas. In addition to mobilising mass surveillance tools to address emergencies, there has been a fleet of 30 drones deployed to monitor crowd levels, as well as the use of ‘Spot’, a robot dog—hailed as one of the world’s most advanced commercial robots — to remind people to maintain safe distance in public parks.

That being said, we asked our respondents if they think mass surveillance can actually slow down infection rates. Despite citing concerns over regarding tracking technology, 42% agreed that solutions to monitor individuals that can enable effective contact tracing and quarantine may allow us to achieve our goal of reducing overall transmission of the virus.

While in agreement that technology solutions can be useful to flatten the curve, 32% of respondents still felt it may not be a cure-all for our coronavirus woes.

A BRAVE NEW WORLD

The pandemic has already required citizens around the world to embrace extreme behaviour in the name of saving lives. In these strange times, common rights like personal privacy that once seemed non-negotiable have come to be seen in a different light. Smartphone tracking may have seemed like a gross violation of dignity and privacy just five short months ago, but when put in the context of the present global situation, strategically sacrificing some privacy could be the only way to protect some of our other freedoms.

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