Government and Policy

‘Travel won’t go back to 2019 levels until 2024’, health certificates are way forward: WEF Summit

‘The real kicker is that we need to make sure that all these certificates are verifiable & interoperable’: Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs

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Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs tells the World Economic Forum (WEF) that travel probably won’t resume to normal until about 2024, and that health certificates are the way forward to opening back up.

When Singapore launched its contact tracing app TraceTogether in March, 2020, the government made the mistake of assuring its citizens that their data would only be used for contact tracing and nothing else.

It was a failed promise.

“I made one mistake. I initially made an assurance that the data was only used for contact tracing.

I had not appreciated at that time when I made that assurance that in fact […] police investigating a crime can ask for documents or for information to be released.

I think that caused concern because there was a potential divergence between what I said and what the law stated”– Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

After 80 to 90 percent of the population opted-in to the State-run contact tracing scheme and believed that the data would “only be used solely for the purpose of contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to covid-19,” the government rescinded its promise in January, 2021, announcing that law enforcement also had access to contact tracing data for criminal investigations.

Then in February, 2021 the government introduced an amendment to a COVID-19 bill that would allow law enforcement to access contact tracing data only for “serious” criminal investigations.

After misleading the Singaporean people on how their data would be used, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan told panelists at the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance forum last week that he had made a mistake, but that trust in government data collection would be essential for resuming travel safely.

Vivian Balakrishnan
Vivian Balakrishnan

“Health certifications will have to include things like vaccination status, immunity status; there will continue, I think, for the next one or two years, to be a need for PCR tests for signs of active infection” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

“I made one mistake,” said Balakrishnan during a virtual panel on “Rebuilding the Trust to Travel.”

“I initially made an assurance that the data was only used for contact tracing. I had not appreciated at that time when I made that assurance that in fact […] police investigating a crime can ask for documents or for information to be released.

“I think that caused concern because there was a potential divergence between what I said and what the law stated, so we then had to go back to parliament and amend the law, so that now police can only gain access to contact tracing data in very tightly circumscribed crimes. For instance, rape, murder, kidnapping.”

Reflecting on the State’s failed promise, Balakrishnan noted, “It illustrates the need for trust for openness, for explanation, and for making sure there’s sufficient transparency, so that privacy is protected.”

As far as getting back to pre-pandemic and government lockdown levels for travel, Minister Balakrishnan said that health certificates would be required, but that travel wouldn’t resume to normal until 2024.

“I don’t think we’ll get back to 2019 levels until about 2024” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

“I don’t think we’ll get back to 2019 levels until about 2024,” he said when asked by the moderator, adding, “It will be quite some time, and let me explain why.

“Basically, we goofed up. This virus was allowed to escape from the genie bottle. It is now endemic. It’s a permanent resident in humanity. It is now at a scale where it is generating new variants.

“It will take time for the lethality and the contagiousness of these new variants to settle down and for our vaccines — not just the invention of vaccines, but the distribution of the vaccines — to catch up.

“I’m afraid we’re going to be in this guerrilla war for quite some time. That’s the bad news.

“People are getting cabin fever. Everyone wants to travel again. And the question will be, how do you proceed safely? That’s where all these technological and policy and diplomatic issues arise” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

“As far as travel; however, I think people are getting cabin fever. Everyone wants to travel again. And the question will be, ‘how do you proceed safely?’

“And that’s where all these technological and policy and diplomatic issues arise. Because we need to solve that. Otherwise, people who need to travel — and there’s a real need to travel; it’s not just for tourism and to see beautiful sights — we can’t get safe travel without settling all these issues,” he added.

Some types of health certificate, such as vaccine passports, immunity status apps, and PCR tests, are the way forward to resuming travel, according to the Singaporean minister.

“We goofed up. This virus was allowed to escape from the genie bottle. It is now endemic. It’s a permanent resident in humanity” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

“It’s not just about vaccination or which one you receive — that’s an input variable. The real question is outcome,” said Balakrishnan.

“Do you have immunity against COVID-19? And even if you do have immunity against COVID-19, are you necessarily safe and you will not be a vector that will pass the virus on to others even though you, yourself, do not show any signs of the condition?

“So, what I’m saying is that health certifications will have to include things like vaccination status, immunity status; there will continue, I think, for the next one or two years, to be a need for PCR tests for signs of active infection,” he added.

“Until the whole world reaches a sufficient level of herd immunity, unfortunately, the way we used to travel is not going to come back in a hurry” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

Beyond the logistics of vaccine distribution, PCR testing, and providing proof of immunity or vaccination, Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs told the Davos crowd that the information gathered should be interoperable across multiple platforms.

“The real kicker is that we need to make sure that all these certificates are verifiable and interoperable,” Balakrishnan said.

“The key point here is interoperability and trust in jurisdictions.

“Until we get there, and until the whole world reaches a sufficient level of herd immunity, unfortunately, the way we used to travel is not going to come back in a hurry,” he added.

“We need to make sure that all these certificates are verifiable and interoperable […] Keep the data private unless it really needs to be uploaded, and even then, with consent” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

But how can a government win the trust of citizens after it has already breached that trust, as was the case with Singapore’s broken promise on the use of contact tracing data?

The technical fix for trust and privacy, according to Balakrishnan is to “Keep the data private unless it really needs to be uploaded, and even then, with consent.”

Did the people of Singapore consent to giving their private data to law enforcement when they signed up for the contact tracing app?

On the subject of contact tracing, the minister told the WEF panel, “A clear concern, which everyone has legitimately, is privacy.”

“Does that mean that Big Brother is watching me all the time?” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

“Because, does that mean that Big Brother is watching me all the time, knows where I am, who I’m with, details which you may not even want to share with your spouse, for instance?

“So, it was essential that we had a few characteristics for our [contact tracing] system.

“Number one: we made it voluntary. Number two: we devised the system such that the data would reside only within your phone or your toolkit that would be manufactured.

“It would never get uploaded unless you were identified as a potential contact. In which case, with your consent, the data would be uploaded and then the contact tracers would get to work on it.”

“If you think about September 11, 2001 and what that incident did to the way we travel in terms of security checks, I think COVID-19 has now introduced a new dimension to the way we all travel” — Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

In the post 9/11 era, surveillance laws were enacted that gave the NSA sweeping powers to spy on individuals without a warrant.

Last week, Balakrishnan remarked, “If you think about September 11, 2001 and what that incident did to the way we travel in terms of security checks, I think COVID-19 has now introduced a new dimension to the way we all travel.

“We all do nose swabs, we will be doing breathalyzers, we’ll be doing all kinds of things in the years to come,” he added.

On April 17, 2020, the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub, along with the Center for New American Security (CNAS) held a panel discussion in which they warned that contact tracing data collection posed post 9/11 privacy abuse risks, with one speaker asserting:

“History teaches us that once governments get that power, they’ve got the information, and they will not give it up that easily.”

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7 Comments

  1. […] So zeigt sich der Außenminister der asiatischen Stadtstaat-Metropole Singapur Vivian Balakrishnan r… „Ich habe einen Fehler gemacht. Ich habe zunächst zugesichert, dass die Daten nur für die Kontaktsuche verwendet werden. Als ich diese Zusicherung machte, war mir nicht klar, dass die Polizei auch die Herausgabe von Dokumenten zu diesen Informationen verlangen kann. Ich denke, das hat Anlass zur Sorge gegeben, weil es eine mögliche Abweichung zwischen dem, was ich gesagt habe, und dem, was das Gesetz festlegt, gab.“ Oder anders gesagt: Auch die Polizei und Behörden lesen die Daten der Bürger aus, und das bei Weitem nicht nur zur Verbrechensbekämpfung! […]

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Tim Hinchliffe
Tim Hinchliffe is the editor of The Sociable. His passions include writing about how technology impacts society and the parallels between Artificial Intelligence and Mythology. Previously, he was a reporter for the Ghanaian Chronicle in West Africa and an editor at Colombia Reports in South America. tim@sociable.co