Top image: Tran Mau Tri Tam / Unsplash
Ever since the TraceTogether backpedalling kerfuffle, the government has gone on an apology blitz to right the wrongs of breaching public trust. This includes promising to pass laws on which crimes fit the bill when such data is used — though it’s hard to imagine extremists bringing along their TraceTogether tokens to a terror plot meeting.
Still, the importance of contact-tracing during a time of airborne pathogens shouldn’t be disregarded, even if the government should have been upfront. It’s unfortunate, then, that this incident has resulted in some folks uninstalling the app and openly destroying the tokens.
It’s one thing for the government to be more transparent, but it’s another for Singaporeans to stay uninformed about the bigger issue of data privacy beyond just the TraceTogether shenanigans.
Where was this same widespread outrage when Singapore announced a programme to install surveillance cameras with facial recognition tech in our lamp posts?
Where was this same widespread disapproval when the Land Transport Authority announced plans to replace Electronic Road Pricing gantries with a system that uses satellites to locate and charge motorists based on how far they travel on specific roads?
Where was this same widespread indignation when it was mentioned that public agencies aren’t governed by the same restrictions of the Personal Data Protection Act as private sector companies?
Where was this same widespread unease when the Smart Nation initiative meant rolling out an all-encompassing network of sensors, cameras and trackers around the island to collect all sorts of data?
More importantly, have we expressed this same level of suspicion over privacy when it comes to our own personal internet usage? Even for the more data-conscious of us out there, rarely do we take the time to scroll through the fine print of terms of service agreements. Blindly clicking “I Agree” has become part and parcel of the process when signing up for services, which is by design.
Hell, we’ve even grown to like giving consent to corporations to absorb our information into their algorithm. We let e-commerce sites use various tracking tools to monitor our browsing behaviour in exchange for the convenience of finding the perfect add-to-cart option. We happily geotag Facebook photos and Instagram Stories to flex about the exact places we’ve been to.
The tech-savvy might already be well aware that free services like TikTok, Facebook and Twitter aren’t really free because at the end of the day, users are paying with their data. The strands of information we generate and the direct access to our eyeballs are commodities that corporations heavily mine, harvest and sell — and you best believe business is booming. What more folks should be aware of is the patterns of our personal online usage (that we willingly provide, mind you) can be collected, compiled and shared in ways we’re not really comfortable with.
Plus, as we’ve learned from the past couple of years, the algorithms which harmonise with personal data trackers can be weaponised and misused in the wrong hands. In 2018, a firm called Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have harvested the data of 50 million American Facebook users without their knowledge to build a program that could influence voters — a tool which was then unleashed to elect Donald Trump as president. And we’ve seen how that turned out in the past week (of which Facebook played a role in, by the way).
Meanwhile, Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp have also been blamed for playing inciting roles in violent, destructive campaigns that have played out in Myanmar and India on account of widespread disinformation and hate speech on the platforms. Kids aren’t spared from harmful manipulation by way of search results and keywords too — just look at the disturbing “child-friendly” YouTube content they were exposed to through Elsagate.
I guess the question we should ask ourselves is this: why are the masses ok with accepting cookies from internet giants but find them unpalatable when the government is involved? Mass surveillance from all sides should rightly hold your concern, be it from Google, Facebook, third-party data brokers, darknet haxx0rs or political figures.
If there is any benefit to this TraceTogether kerfuffle, it’s that it could spark the great privacy awakening in Singapore. One can hope.
Some would argue that user data collection is less of a slippery slope and more of a post-McSpicy visit to the loo: it’s dirty, it’s unstoppable, and we’re happy to continue having more of it.
Fair point! Living in an age where the internet runs the world requires the acceptance that your personal data is routinely acquired by companies and government agencies.
The alternative — forgoing internet access completely — is unimaginably backward.
Where then would boomers utter angry, peculiarly-abbreviated curses without HardwareZone Forum? Where would teens perform thirstdancing rituals without TikTok? How would I impress my house guests without voice-operated lightbulbs?
The argument here is not to go off-grid or be a Luddite. What we could do instead is exercise a greater degree of personal responsibility by adopting measures to better protect our own personal data security. There are a tonne of tools available to help keep our data secure; from VPNs to encrypted mail services, from DuckDuckGo to simply being conscious of our device privacy settings. Perhaps use Signal or Telegram instead of complying to WhatsApp’s problematic terms of service update.
Ultimately, we need to know that we do have some degree of power when it comes to data privacy, and we as consumers should rightfully be more aware of the potential harm that comes with modern internet usage. If we can collectively demand our ministers to be more transparent with TraceTogether, we can (and should) do the same for big tech.
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