Many countries around the world have adopted mass surveillance to keep track of their citizens’ movement in the name of security and data gathering. Some of the methods used by these governments include listening to phone conversations, reading emails and text messages, monitoring posts on social media, assessing web browsing history and more.
Among countries that have mass surveillance projects are China, India, and the United States.
Closer to home, Singapore’s Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed in Parliament on Monday (4 January) that the city-state’s police force can obtain data from the national contact tracing programme TraceTogether for criminal investigations.
Mr Tan explained that police is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to get hold of any data, and that includes the data gathered from TraceTogether.
“The Government is the custodian of the TT (TraceTogether) data submitted by the individuals and stringent measures are put in place to safeguard this personal data,” said the Minister.
Examples of these measures, he said, include only allowing authorised officers to access the data, using such data only for authorised purposes and storing the data on a secured data platform.
The next day, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam clarified in Parliament that the police will restrict the use of data collected from TT to “very serious offences”.
Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan told the House the same day that such data had been used once in a murder case.
While data from TraceTogether will be deleted at the end of police investigations if it is not of any particular use, Mr Shanmugam noted that such data “will have to be produced in court” when necessary.
Mr Tan’s latest announcement contradicts the Government’s earlier promise, in which it said that TT will be solely used for contact tracing in order to stem the spreading of COVID-19 in the country.
In a multi-ministry taskforce press conference in June last year, Dr Balakrishnan assured the public that the app and the data collected from it are “purely for contact tracing, period”.
In fact, co-chair of the Singapore COVID-19 taskforce Lawrence Wong said then that “there is no intention to use a TraceTogether app or TraceTogether token as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules”.
More than 4.2 million people, or about 78 per cent of Singapore’s resident population, are now using the app or token, according to Mr Wong in Parliament on Monday.
A privacy statement on the TraceTogether website was updated on Monday and included “how the Criminal Procedure code applies to all data under Singapore’s jurisdiction”.
When it comes to mass surveillance, the subject has always gathered negative responses from the public.
Non-governmental organisation on human rights Amnesty International pointed out in an article a number of reasons why the public should view mass surveillance as a significant concern even if they have nothing to hide from the government.
The first point raised was that privacy should be deemed as a right unless there is a legitimate suspicion.
It explained that governments usually carry out targeted surveillance, in which they monitor a person or group for a specific and legitimate reason.
In order for them to do so, they will need to be granted permission from a judge to monitor the activity of someone suspected of criminal doings.
However, if innocent citizens’ activities are constantly watched, it may be akin to treating the general public like criminal suspects, according to Amnesty International.
Another concern raised by the public is that people generally would not want others to know what they do behind closed doors. This is simply because people would rather keep their lives private.
The next point that the article stated is that “mass surveillance is an unprecedented intrusion into the privacy of ordinary people”, and that it is not acceptable for governments to monitor citizens’ movement just to keep them safe.
Moving on, another important concern that the public highlighted is that information about people has been used against them during crises in the past.
“Throughout history, seemingly innocent information about people has been used to persecute them during moments of crisis. You may trust your current government to look for criminals and not do anything dishonest with your data.
“But what if it changed and shifted dramatically to the left or the right? In these situations, authorities could gather data to find and crack down on groups they disagree with. They could use the information to target journalists, persecute activists and discriminate against minorities,” warned Amnesty International.
Additionally, a United States National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden told Amnesty International: “These people are looking for criminals. You could be the most innocent person in the world, but if somebody programmed to see patterns of criminality looks at your data, they’re not going to find you – they’re going to find a criminal.”
Lastly, Amnesty International’s article mentioned that evidence shows that people’s behaviour begins to change when they know they are being monitored, adding that they will become warier about what they say or do online — including refraining from saying anything potentially controversial.
“As a result, societies will become very conformist, with no-one willing to challenge the status quo,” the NGO warned.
Commenting on the Government’s change of stance on using TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, journalist Kirsten Han said in a Facebook post that when an activist is being investigated, the police now have the power to look at who they have been in close contact with.
“From a civil society POV, this means that whenever an investigation is opened into an activist — which can stem from nonviolent, mundane actions — the police have the power, if they want to, to access their TraceTogether data and see who they have been in close contact with,” she noted.
Separately, social worker and civil rights activist Jolovan Wham called the government and politicians liars for going back on their words.
“Skeptics were told they were being paranoid, branded an ‘oppie’ and ‘opposing for the sake of opposing’. In Singapore, trust in public institutions is high, but that’s cos they operate with opacity, are rarely exposed or held to account.
“People in power lie. All governments lie. This is a fact, whether you live in an authoritarian or democratic country, except that in a democratic country, they have a strong civil society with a questioning population.
“The only way to keep power honest is for us citizens to always be skeptical and critical. We haven’t quite developed that yet,” Mr Wham wrote in a Facebook post.
While the Law Minister has said that the use of data will be restricted to “serious offences”, there is no definition in law about what those “serious offences” refer to — this could mean that the police will not be restricted in law in terms of the circumstances in which they could use TraceTogether data in their investigations.