A woman checks her mobile phone at a street cafe in Hanoi. Photo: EPA-EFE
Dien Nguyen An Luong
Dien Nguyen An Luong

Vietnam’s coronavirus app Bluezone treads grey line between safety, privacy

  • The relative success of Vietnam’s contact-tracing app has sparked concerns about the privacy of users
  • But with high public trust in the government’s Covid-19 strategy, app users are wont to give authorities the benefit of the doubt
Determined to avert another widespread lockdown when another coronavirus wave hit Vietnam in late July, the authorities have swung into action to contain the spread of the virus. Ditto their alacrity to enlist public participation in downloading Bluezone, a contact-tracing app designed to detect Covid-19 exposure.

Rolled out in mid-April, Bluezone is among dozens of contact-tracing apps built globally to notify the public of any potential exposure.

Once downloaded, thanks to GPS or Bluetooth technology, these apps can access users’ personal information as well as the locations and the people they have been in contact with. Such contact histories will be shared with the authorities for the purpose of documentation.

Contact tracing apps: panacea, privacy invasion, or simply flawed?

This development is taking place against the global backdrop in which the global success of contact-tracing apps and the public trust in them have remained a major question.

Vietnam’s Bluezone is not an exception. It was launched at a time when Vietnam had almost succeeded in defeating the second wave of the pandemic, meaning the app has not got a chance to pass any smell test.

But almost right after the latest wave emerged in Vietnam, the authorities, including Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, wasted no time in calling on the public to download the app.

The target is ambitious: 50 million active users out of a population of 97 million.

The government’s call has been met with unusually eager public acceptance. According to data from mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower, until mid-July, Vietnam’s adoption rate of the app was as low as 0.4 per cent of the population, meaning about 390,000 people downloaded it. But since the latest wave later that month, the app has been downloaded over 20 million times, based on official government figures.
A review by Straits Interactive (a Singapore-based data protection consultancy) of contact-tracing apps in six Southeast Asian countries ranked Vietnam below Singapore in terms of privacy communications and overall marks, in the same league as Thailand and the Philippines, and above Malaysia and Indonesia. A major shortcoming in Bluezone is it “doesn’t have a specific privacy notice or statement”, the review noted.

On a global scale, the MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker has obtained data on nearly 50 such apps, rating them on five key metrics and designating a star for each one. Bluezone scored two stars, with the reviewers flagging the app for not limiting the use of data it collects and for stopping short of saying whether the data would be destroyed later on.

Perhaps the most tricky question with the Vietnamese app lies in the fact that the authorities have repeatedly harped on the need for its usage to reach 60 per cent of the population to effectively battle the pandemic, a threshold which could have been determined based on an Oxford study released in April.

But what has been glossed over since could raise some hackles: the very authors of that study said in June that their finding had been profoundly misinterpreted and that “much lower levels of app adoption could still be vitally important for tackling Covid-19”.

Case in point: although Iceland’s app has recorded an adoption rate of about 40 per cent, among the most successful in the world, it still is not a silver bullet and cannot supersede manual contact tracing.
Why do the authorities need such a massive amount of data on personal information without being clear about what they are going to do with them?

This has prompted several questions: why does the Vietnamese government on the one hand keep beating the drum about the benefits of its contact-tracing app, but on the other choose to cherry-pick the data that is otherwise critical to public understanding and discussion of it? Why do the authorities need such a massive amount of data on personal information without being clear about what they are going to do with them?

As experts have repeatedly warned, authoritarian governments all over the world may seek to cloak their intent on using surveillance via technologies to reinforce and further legitimise their censorship regimes under the banner of battling the spread of the coronavirus. The asset those regimes are salivating at? Access to citizens’ private information.


Vietnam ramps up ventilator production as coronavirus strikes back

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It would be too early or even unfair to jump on that conclusion that this is the trajectory the Vietnamese authorities are eventually headed for, at least for now. That is not to mention that for many Vietnamese, it might be even worth giving up a little privacy if it means saving lives, a legitimate rationale that could render any discussion of privacy rights at this point luxurious and elitist.

But that doesn’t just mean the trade-off between privacy rights and saving lives.

Vietnam has been battling the latest coronavirus wave at a time when the public trust in the government has been exceptionally high. According to data from the Covid-19 behaviour tracker compiled by YouGov, a British data analytics firm, and Imperial College London, nearly 97 per cent of Vietnamese polled between May and July said the government was handling the crisis “very” or “somewhat” well. The survey interviewed about 21,000 people each week in 29 countries.

It is in this context that even though the latest wave has seen 27 deaths as of Monday, the Vietnamese people have continued to exhibit a high sense of compliance to drastic measures enacted by the government to contain the pandemic, chief among them mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces, mass quarantine, rigorous contact-tracing and aggressive testing.

One of the most crucial factors that have enabled Vietnam’s authorities to win public hearts and minds is their unusually extraordinary level of transparency in governance and public communications. It would thus be a risky bet for the government to gamble away such otherwise unlikely transparency on some insidious scheme.

Public trust is always hard to earn; it is even harder to restore once shattered.

Dien Luong is a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and other publications. This commentary was first published on the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s website on August 21, 2020.