Singapore has announced its police will be able to use data obtained by its coronavirus contact-tracing technology for criminal investigations, a decision likely to increase privacy concerns around the system.
The technology, deployed as both a phone app and a physical device, is being used by nearly 80% of the 5.7 million population, authorities said, after announcing its use would become compulsory in places such as shopping malls.
The TraceTogether scheme, one of the most widely used in any country, has raised privacy fears but authorities have said the data is encrypted, stored locally and tapped by authorities only if individuals test positive for Covid-19.
“The Singapore police force is empowered … to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations,” the minister of state for home affairs, Desmond Tan, said on Monday in response to a question in parliament.
The privacy statement on the TraceTogether website says: “Data will only be used for Covid-19 contact tracing.”
Privacy concerns have been raised about such apps in various places, including Israel and South Korea.
“Concerns have focused on data security issues associated with the collection, use and storage of the data,” law firm Norton Rose Fullbright said of Singapore’s scheme in a review of global contact-tracing technology last month.
Asked about the TraceTogether privacy statement by an opposition MP, Tan said: “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.”
Dissent is rare in Singapore, which has been ruled by the same party since its independence in 1965, has strict laws, widespread surveillance and restrictions on public assembly. Serious crime is also rare.
The prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has previously said privacy concerns about the technology had to be weighed against the need to curb the spread of the virus and keep the economy open.
Singapore has reported only a handful of local Covid-19 cases in the past few months, and its extensive disease surveillance and contact tracing efforts have won international praise including from the World Health Organization.
Australia based its own contact tracing app, Covidsafe, on the TraceTogether app source code.
The New South Wales Department of Health said last year that one major issue with the app – which would also have privacy implications if used by law enforcement – was falsely identifying close contacts.
“There were neighbours in the same apartment buildings or nearby houses, there were office workers who worked on different floors in the case, there were people who were in different restaurants with the case, [or] that was still on the same street or perhaps a few doors down or even over the road from the case,” researcher Jana Sisnowski said.