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Singapore admits it should have explained COVID app data could be used by cops

Island nation reworks digital infrastructure found to have slowed down pandemic response

The Singapore prime minister's office admitted on Wednesday that it should have "been clearer" on plans to use data collected by its COVID tracking program from the onset, and that allowing the data to be used in police investigations had affected public trust.

The comments were made in a 92-page white paper titled Singapore's Response to COVID-19: Lessons for the Next Pandemic.

"The TraceTogether (TT) programme faced slow adoption initially, and suffered a setback with the disclosure that TT data could be used for criminal investigations following earlier reassurances that the data would only be used for contact tracing," explained a government statement accompanying the release of the white paper.

Prior to January 4 2021, the government assured the public that "data will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing. Any data shared with [Ministry of Health] MOH will only be used solely for contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to COVID-19." It later emerged the data could legally be used for criminal investigations.

The white paper paper also revealed that the use of the TraceTogether, paired with national digital visitor registration system SafeEntry, "ultimately helped reduce the time needed to identify and quarantine close contacts from four days to less than 1.5 days." Combined use of the two was eventually required for entry to shopping malls, hospitals and other public spaces.

"This shows that beyond developing the technology, we have to integrate the technology well with operational plans, and to tackle adoption challenges," according to the paper.

The document draws on a review conducted by now retired chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Peter Ho, as well as reviews from ministries and other government agencies.

"After three years battling the COVID-19 pandemic, things have finally returned to normal. It is timely to take stock and learn from the experiences we have been through," the review opens. It ultimately warns the lessons learned should not be considered as a template for future pandemic management, but instead an account of how pandemic-era decisions were made and the outcomes that followed.

The paper's conclusion is that Singapore should make better use of digital technology in the next pandemic, going beyond the life sciences.

"Central structures that were set up to coordinate our data and technology needs, such as the Smart Nation Digital Government Office (SNDGO) and GovTech, should have been activated earlier to integrate digital solutions with ground operations, to speed up the rate of adoption of these solutions during the crisis," suggested the document.

Siloing of data across institutions created a problem, as time was wasted preparing and merging datasets to monitor the outbreak. The government said it would invest in data engineering capabilities and interoperable systems across agencies so that data from multiple sources could be more easily fused together.

However, the paper warned of the potential cyber security risks associated with such actions and inherent to reliance on digital tools. The city-state thus needs "agile structures that can assess trade-offs and make fast decisions on project implementation issues."

Those structures include technology teams, security, operations, communications, and policy experts "as early as possible in the design stages." ®

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