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Broken promises: How Singapore lost trust on contact tracing privacy

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For Singaporeans, the covid-19 pandemic has been closely intertwined with technology: two technologies, to be specific. The first is the QR code, whose little black-and-white squares have been ubiquitous all over the country as part of the SafeEntry contact tracing system rolled out in April and May. 

Under SafeEntry, anyone entering a public venue—restaurants, stores, malls—must scan a code and register with a name, ID or passport number, and phone number. If somebody tests positive for covid-19, contact tracers use it to track down those who got close enough to be potentially infected.

There’s also TraceTogether, an app that launched in March 2020. It uses Bluetooth to ping close contacts; if two users are in proximity, their devices trade anonymized and encrypted user IDs that can be decrypted by the Ministry of Health should one person test positive for covid-19. 

For those who can’t or don’t want to use a smartphone app, the government also offers TraceTogether tokens, small digital fobs that serve the same purpose. And while TraceTogether is currently voluntary, the government has announced that it is going to merge the two systems, which would make it mandatory to either download the app or collect a token.

When the two systems were launched, there wasn’t much space for the public to discuss apprehensions: they were seen as necessary to fight the pandemic, and the Singaporean government acted in typical top-down fashion. It did seek to assuage fears, however, by repeatedly assuring Singaporeans that the data collected with such technology would be used only for contact tracing during the pandemic. 

And that’s where things went wrong.

Private data being used by police

Earlier this month, it emerged that the government’s claim was false. The Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed that data could actually be accessed by the police for criminal investigations; the day after this admission, a minister revealed that such data had, in fact, already been used in a murder investigation. It rapidly became clear that despite what ministers had previously said, Singaporean law meant it had been possible for law enforcement to use TraceTogether data all along.

These revelations triggered public anger and criticism, not necessarily because Singaporeans are particularly privacy conscious—in fact, state surveillance is largely normalized in the country—but because people felt they’d been subjected to a bait-and-switch. Many people had reservations about TraceTogether when it was first launched, and only began using it in large numbers after the government indicated that it would soon become mandatory. (According to the cochair of the task force on covid-19, nearly 80% of Singapore’s residents have adopted TraceTogether.)

The government has since announced that it will introduce new legislation to limit law enforcement’s use of contact tracing data to probes into seven specific categories of offense, including terrorism, murder, kidnapping, and the most serious drug trafficking cases. (The MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker, which monitors the policies around exposure notification apps worldwide, is being updated to reflect this shift.)

“We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code,” said the Smart Nation and Digital Governance Office in its statement. The new law, it said, “will specify that personal data collected through digital contact tracing solutions … can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing, except where there is a clear and pressing need to use that data for criminal investigation of serious offences.”

Not in the original spirit

There is no timeline yet as to when the proposed legislation will be brought before parliament, and details are scant. 

“In Singapore, where laws grant sweeping executive and legislative powers to state actors, I think any commitment to accountability and restraint is welcome,” says digital rights activist Lee Yi Ting. “But it remains to be seen if the bill will make substantive commitment to these proposed limitations. For example, if state actors flout these regulations, what investigative bodies will come into play, and what consequences will state actors be held to?” 

Some doubt how useful such data can really be to police investigations and are concerned that even the proposed limits still formally expand its use beyond contact tracing.

“We like to reiterate that extending police powers to [TraceTogether] data is not aligned to the original spirit of what the dataset was intended for,” said the opposition Progress Singapore Party in a statement. “Covid tracing data must solely and strictly be used for fighting the pandemic and nothing else.” 

Trust is on the line

The confusion could not come at a more difficult time. Concerns that governments could abuse contact tracing systems have been raised around the world. Many of these worries have been misplaced, especially in countries that use Google and Apple’s exposure notification technology, which does not allow centralized collection by local authorities. The Singapore government had previously rejected Apple and Google’s system, saying that it would be “less effective” in the Singaporean context. 

But while digital systems could speed up contact tracing and aid in the fight against the virus—one that could be more vital over time, not less—most countries have struggled with adoption. One major issue: trust.

Lee worries that even if legislation is enough to placate many Singaporeans, the implications outside the country could be serious. Singapore’s early move to build digital contact tracing put it in a global leadership position, and TraceTogether’s underlying systems have been used by other nations—though there is no suggestion that the same legislative mistakes were made elsewhere. 

Still, “Singaporeans do care about the extent to which the state intrudes into their private lives,” says Lee. And, she adds, the country is setting an international precedent “for repressive governments to likewise normalize the use of contact tracing data for the purposes they define.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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