Why I have yet to install TraceTogether, Singapore’s COVID-19 contact tracing app

tracetogether

In a perfect world with complete trust in Government, every Singaporean would download the TraceTogether App to assist in national COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. Thus it is unfortunate that some of us do not yet have the requisite level of trust.

Unfortunate firstly because it seems like our brilliant techies engineered an app that has sufficient safeguards for those concerned about government surveillance.

The location and nearby-contact data sit on your phone, and are accessed by MOH only in specific COVID-19 circumstances with the user’s consent; TraceTogether is quite clearly designed to assuage privacy concerns, to allay fears of Big Brother.

The technical solution is so elegant and light, in fact, that governments around the world have asked us for the source code. Now that is something for Singaporeans to be proud of, not some humdrum comment by Barbara Streisand.

(All that said, an oversight by the TraceTogether team has just been exposed, reconfirmed directly by a contact of mine at GovTech. The original app included in its build wogaa.sg, a government data collection service, which means that TraceTogether collects more data than necessary and compromises its supposed anonymity and 21-day data hygiene. Thankfully GovTech is working to remove wogaa, a standard feature in such products, in TraceTogether’s next iteration. However the oversight, specifically the team’s unconscious acceptance of code that collects and sends your data to the government, is worrying for those of us concerned about social conditioning to surveillance. Separately, Digital Reach has also raised concerns in an article titled “TraceTogether: Disassembling Was Not Easy to Verify the State’s Privacy Claims“.)

For us not to download TraceTogether is also unfortunate because this pandemic is akin to a war with shadowy enemies such as ISIS. It is a time when some suspension of civil liberties, including privacy, may be warranted.

Many civil rights advocates will disagree. After all, we are living in an era of creeping authoritarianism around the world, when individuals seem to be unwittingly signing away their rights to Big Government and Big Tech. Yuval Harari articulates many of these concerns in “The World after Coronavirus”.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be a more conscious acceptance, especially during this COVID-19 period, of the need for intrusions into our private lives when it comes to dire issues of national security.1

The important caveat is that there must be accountability and transparency regarding the intrusion, and any other suspension of civil liberties, in order to prevent abuse. There must be appropriate societal checks and balances, whether through independent commissions, government watchdogs or the media. Citizens need to know that we can seek redress for any injustice or suffering because of the intrusion.

And this is where Singapore fails.

There are countless episodes in our history that prove the point. The most obvious one is the alleged Marxist Conspiracy of 1987.

That year Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD), under orders from the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership, arrested twenty-two Singaporeans, a mix of activists, church and social workers, and theatre performers. The government accused them of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state. They spent different amounts of time in prison, the longest three years, without ever being charged for anything. The ISD tortured some of them into making false confessions (so they claim).

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, and most others in parliament then, including K Shanmugam and Goh Chok Tong, have maintained these allegations. However people such as politicians Tharman Shanmugaratnam and S Dhanabalan, former attorney-general Walter Woon, and Singapore’s pre-eminent historian Mary Turnbull have raised doubts about them.

Many of us believe Tharman and the latter group. If they are right, this suggests that the alleged Marxist Conspiracy was a horrible attempt by the PAP to fix its perceived opponents.

What is the relevance of all this to TraceTogether? Well, put another way, it appears that in 1987, the ISD relied on intelligence unethically gathered, including its knowledge of friend networks, to help the PAP execute a dastardly political manoeuvre.

For TraceTogether, on the one hand, GovTech has told us about its privacy safeguards and about the special circumstances under which MOH can request data. On the other, GovTech reports to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), helmed by the same person—take note, Barbara—who helped oversee the Marxist Conspiracy manoeuvre.

What assurances do we have that PMO (or ISD) will not somehow obtain and abuse the TraceTogether data sent to MOH, the same way personal network and contact data was (seemingly) abused in the arrest and detention of the “Marxist Conspirators”?

To be clear, this is not to suggest that TraceTogether is vulnerable or has a “backdoor”, or that it was cobbled together for some Orwellian purpose. There is widespread acceptance of its virtuous intent.

Rather, it is a belief that the dominant political forces have, can, and will abuse democratic norms for their own ends, with little recourse for victims or unsuspecting handmaidens.

To think of it another way, the technologists’ brilliance is clouded by their political masters’ (perceived capacity for) chicanery.

What can we do to rectify this situation? In the short term, not much. We are in the middle of a pandemic and have far more important things to do. (Like hold an election.)

But in the longer term, techies, policy wonks and others, this is what you can do: lobby your leaders and representatives, make sure they understand the need for accountability and transparency. 2 Perhaps we need a Commission of Inquiry into the alleged Marxist Conspiracy? And systematic declassification of documents after X years?

Only when Singaporeans trust the integrity of the entire socio-political process will we easily get buy-in for (seemingly defensible) surveillance. Some argue that surveillance in Singapore is already so widespread that any marginal risk from TraceTogether is negligible. Perhaps, but there is a fundamental difference between a government spying on its citizens and citizens voluntarily capturing and sending data whose integrity might later be compromised. Moreover, TraceTogether’s use of Bluetooth provides an additional level of granularity not otherwise available (say, through regular mobile phone user data).

So we need to have these conversations before the next crisis, natural or man-made, which probably won’t be far off. We need to nurture a society which, in the words of writer Jolene Tan, does not instinctively poo pooh claims of state abuse.

On that note, it is sad to see several on the pro-TraceTogether side dissing privacy advocates: “Oh you think you are so important that the G wants to track you?” Ad-hominem attacks like this only poison otherwise genuine exchanges.

The very essence of a panopticon, in fact, is to blur the lines between irrelevance and importance, to ensure that everybody excessively self censors. Singapore’s history is littered with examples of persecuted people—from the “Marxist” church workers to Jolovan Wham, social worker currently in jail for a Facebook post criticising the judiciary—who might have hitherto been considered by many to be “unimportant”.

Without doubt, GovTech deserves praise for TraceTogether, a nifty, well-intentioned addition to our COVID-19 arsenal. But one hopes GovTech can appreciate Singapore’s broader socio-political environment; and the numerous ethical issues we must work through, together, before such initiatives can achieve broad success here.

“Technology does not exist in a vacuum,” as a friend says. “The values and past histories of those who make it and own it influence how a technology will be perceived and accepted/resisted.”

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1 Countries everywhere, from Israel to South Korea, have implemented or are considering enhanced measures, which might worry civil rights activists, in order to deal with COVID-19.

2 Nobody is under any illusions that this will be easy. Given Singapore’s one-party dominance, there seems very little political impetus for this sort of accountability and transparency.

Note: I have yet to install TraceTogether. Am undecided. Ultimately, with countries everywhere rolling out their own contact tracing apps, we may all be forced, by custom or otherwise, to install it. (For the sake of our species! Gosh, are we there yet?)

Nevertheless, with a lot of misinformation and straw man arguments out there, it is important that people in GovTech and elsewhere understand the reasons for resistance among some Singaporeans. I hope this piece is read in that spirit, not as some attempt to undermine an impressive technology intervention to a public health crisis.

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Singapore leads the world in coronavirus fight

Ruling party politician sanitises public housing lifts

Screenshot 2020-02-13 at 8.44.18 AM

Every day Singapore’s leaders make great sacrifices for the people. The Honourable MP Low Yen Ling (middle) is seen spending a Saturday guiding a seven-person team through the intricate task of cleaning an elevator.

To the Honourable MP’s right are three South Asian workers. They are wearing imported sneakers that their cousins working in Qatar cannot afford. They are wearing masks because they are either sick or are at serious risk of contracting the virus. In Singapore only the sick and frontline healthcare workers wear masks, as per our WHO (We Help Ourselves) Guidance Rules instituted in 1965.

Since one Bangladeshi worker has contracted the virus, every South Asian migrant worker is a potential carrier. Transmission can occur in their lush dormitories or on Sundays at Serangoon Road, the recreational area Singapore has graciously designated for these workers. (“Edgy, hipsterish, popular among backpackers,” says the Singapore Tourism Board. “Complete darkness,” says a ruling party politician #tellsitlikeitis)

The Honourable MP, standing next to one worker, is not a virus carrier and hence needs no mask. Likewise for the Chinese men.

The men are dressed in descending order of formality to show their respective positions in the Ai-Pi, Ai-Chi hierarchy (“Want cheap, want good”, in our delightful Hokkien dialect.) If the Honourable MP wants to say something to the workers, she will pass the message down the food chain. The man in the blue shirt will then relay it sweetly to his workers.

If the three Chinese men perform well, they will have a better chance of appearing next to the Honourable MP in future photographs. If not, they will undergo retraining so they can work in comfortable jobs riding subsidised electronic bicycles or rental cars.

Singapore thanks all seven for their contribution to total defence. Our benevolent government has given each Chinese one stack of toilet rolls. And each South Asian an equivalent gift: a year’s subscription to The Straits Times.

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[Above is satire.]

Image: MP’s FB

For the record, as explained in previous post, I think the Singapore government has done a pretty good job in its response to the virus outbreak.

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Corona notes from the Singaporean backline

200207_ikansumbat_twitter

Image credit: Twitter/@ikansumbat

– Why the fascination with comparing ourselves to other countries and one-upping them? I’ve seen numerous HK vs Singapore comparisons, from Singaporeans, Bloomberg et al, that fail to acknowledge basic differences. A tad ignorant and lazy.

Do look at a map. And conduct a thought experiment. Imagine if the virus emerged not in Wuhan, but in peninsular Malaysia. And that there was the fear of infected Malaysians streaming across the causeway in search of goods and medical services.

I suspect the PAP’s fans wouldn’t be laughing at Carrie Lam.

– The Singapore government has done a pretty good job so far, given what little I know. It’s not easy calming nerves, trying to control the spread, while also keeping the economy going. Hysteria and shutdowns have costs. Over 20% of Singaporean households live hand to mouth. They have trouble buying tomorrow’s meals, never mind a month’s worth of noodles.

I wouldn’t give the G full marks because we had a nutty supermarket run over the past few days, fuelled partly by worries that the government is hiding something.

“You don’t need a mask if you’re healthy but you do if you’re sick”, the government’s message, never made sense because a functioning mask can make some difference if you are near an infected person; and everywhere you went, banks, hawker stalls, shops, so many customer-facing workers were wearing masks. (Were they all sick?)

Many Singaporeans concluded that the government was not being completely transparent about mask stockpiles. (And if so, then what else?)

– Nerves are frayed. Tensions high. I’ve had a few testy conversations over the past few days. One good friend hopped on the fake news bandwagon last week and then became very defensive when called out. Interestingly, this person was actually on a business trip abroad when he decided to inform those of us back home about supposed school closures. Concern, uncertainty, haste, panic.

Another one, a foreigner watching from abroad, castigated me for giving my government a rating of “pretty good”. Insufficiently effusive. I should have said “the best in the world”.

And for this heinous crime, all the old slurs were trotted out: Singaporeans don’t know what life is like in the developing world, we are living in a bubble, skewed views, spoiled brats.

Aiyoh. When will people finally realise that Delhi and Jakarta are not benchmarks for Singapore?

So 2000s…

– My “pretty good” came shortly after reading Lee Hsien Loong’s speech over the weekend, which I enjoyed, and which has deservedly been given lots of airtime overseas.

Interestingly, some friends who watched the speech over telly came away with the opposite impression: leaden, uninspiring, joke about noodles fell flat. Reminded me about the importance of medium and delivery.

– The racial elements and stereotypes fascinate me. And could be the subject of a piece once the dust settles. But this is what I gather so far.

First Chinese nationals, “zhongguoren”, made fun of themselves: bat, Wuhan jokes going around their own Weibo sphere. Then overseas Chinese, “huaren”, many in Singapore, made fun of the PRCs.

Then these same huaren got upset when other groups, like Singapore Indians, started lumping all ethnic Chinese together as “bat eaters” and “virus carriers”.

Singapore Indians felt a bit of schadenfreude at this prejudice. “Ah, now you Chinese know what it’s like to have people avoid you on trains, to get up and leave when you sit next to them.”

I actually felt this while riding on the MRT last week…such a strange, conflicting feeling, to know, after 42 years of living in a country, that you are no longer near the bottom of the (transportation) totem pole.

I’ve also heard stories that some South Asians believe they are naturally immune to this “Chinese disease”. Well, that’s at least before we had a Bangladeshi worker infected.

Finally, all the stuff about toilet rolls is great. “Why hoard? Why not just cebok, wash your bum?” has been the cry from Indians and Malays.

Background: Singaporeans have always cleaned their bums in different ways. Chinese tend to just use paper, Indians and Malays paper/wash or wash. Because of this, each side thinks the other is dirty.

“Eeeee, do you wash your hands after?” Chinese friends used to ask me in school. (“Yes. But I dig my nose first.”)

Well, here’s hoping that anal hygiene brings us together, strengthens Singaporean solidarity.

Stay safe. And if you are desperate for food or alcohol, drop by. I also, thanks to LiLing Ho, my wonky conservation wifey, have a year’s supply of unbleached bamboo toilet paper, which feels terrible on the ass but gets the job done.

For those of you, that is, who use paper.

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PS: my “peninsular Malaysia rather than Wuhan” example is not completely academic. Johor, for instance, has a reputation for its underground wildlife and bush meat markets. Bats, civet cats, monkey brain, some say even tigers. Possibly archaic practices, but still. A Singaporean cabby once told me that the finest meat he has ever tried is porcupine, in Johor.

PS2: Most of the panic buying appears to have been done by Chinese. Just read an interesting piece on the cultural differences between Chinese kiasuism and Malay lepakness (Drive caused by fear of losing vs being relaxed). Will mull…

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