Singapore’s COVID tracking turns it into a veritable surveillance state
By Mary Villareal // Nov 22, 2021

Singapore is now using the technology investments that helped propel its economic development to control its citizens. Since the mid-1980s, the country's philosophy has stayed the same: an ideological and irreconcilable blend of capitalism and state control.


The efficient technology in Singapore worked for many Singaporeans, and many have trust in the system. However, this system can be dehumanizing for those who fall out of bounds.

With the rise in Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, the government put the whole country into lockdown. Residents were told to stay indoors and only allowed to leave home to buy necessities or to exercise. Meanwhile, in migrant dormitories outside the city, some 300,000 laborers could not leave at all.

Singapore's migrant workers have always been expected to exist in ways that are distinct from mainstream society. Their relationship with Singapore is explicitly transactional. While they can earn hard currency to send home, they can never be true residents.

The pandemic burned through close-packed migrant dormitories and by the end of 2020, more than 150,000 migrant workers had been infected, compared to 4,000 in the general population.

For the country, the pandemic lasted just under two months, and to manage the transition back to normal, the government turned to technology to collect system records. One system, called TraceTogether, requires users to download an app and register themselves with their national ID card number. It collects and records information whenever users pass in close proximity with one another. (Related: Big tech and government coronavirus contact-tracing apps are flawed.)

Contact tracing apps as mass tracking systems

When entering buildings, residents had to check-in using QR-code-based systems called SafeEntry. While TraceTogether was initially voluntary, it later merged with SafeEntry. It then became compulsory for everyone to have both tracking apps. Those apps were then linked to the Singpass and HealthHub accounts of citizens, displaying their vaccination status and recent test results across platforms.

This created what was essentially an always-on mass tracking system, although the government assured citizens that the data would only be used for contact tracing.

The system allows bars, restaurants and malls to reopen. But the technology remains intrusive for migrant workers, with the app expanding to incorporate other data such as the COVID status of other people in their dorms and whether or not they have a scheduled swab test. Each day, they have to check the app to see whether or not they're allowed to leave the dorms.

"Sometimes it's red color, sometimes it’s green. If green, I'm allowed to work, if red, not allowed to work," said Shamim, a worker from Bangladesh. He has to use TraceTogether to check in and out everywhere he goes, and also has to record his temperature twice a day on a separate app.

The Singaporean government assured its citizens in June 2020 that the TraceTogether app keeps their data safe and that it would only be used for contact tracing. Seven months later, the government admitted that this was not true and that police could access the data.

"Singapore Police Force is empowered under the criminal procedure code to obtain any data, and that includes the TraceTogether data for criminal investigations," said Minister of State Desmond Tan of Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment.

Privacy experts and activists were not surprised, but things like these only come into focus when there is a breach.

"Efficiency is the overriding principle for everything. It doesn't necessarily mean efficient for the citizens. It might be more efficient for the government. With efficiency, basically everything is permitted," said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a Singaporean privacy lawyer and LGBTQI activist.

Read more stories about government surveillance at

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