by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook

SINCE THE START of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je has sought to tout his TaipeiPASS system as a remedy to many of Taiwan’s COVID-19 woes. 

In particular, Ko has sought to try and upstage the central government by touting TaipeiPASS. For example, when the central government was rolling out a QR code text message registration system for contact tracing purposes, Ko originally tried to tout TaipeiPASS as a preferable contact tracing system. In the end, however, Ko relented on the issue because the QR code text message registration system was faster to use, while TaipeiPASS required several seconds to load for QR code registration. 

When the central government began rolling out an online vaccination registration system, Ko also touted TaipeiPASS as a superior way for Taipei residents to register for vaccinations. By contrast, the central government stated that the TaipeiPASS system could interface with its vaccination registration system. 

As the COVID-19 situation stabilizes and vaccination rates rise, Ko now continues to push for the widespread use of TaipeiPASS. If a system of vaccine passports is instituted in Taiwan, Ko suggests that TaipeiPASS could be used for vaccine passports. Nevertheless, it would prove a strange idea for Taipei residents to use a vaccine passport that could not be used in the rest of the country. 

As economic relief measures are rolled out by the government to assist businesses that have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, including stimulus vouchers that can be spent at stores, restaurants, theaters, and other establishments, Ko has tried to distribute economic relief measures in Taipei through TaipeiPASS. That being said, the rollout has been criticized for technical issues. 

Sabrina Lim’s post on the TaipeiPASS system

Yet the TaipeiPASS system has recently come under fire by Taipei city councilor Sabrina Lim regarding its centralization of sensitive data in a way that infringes upon privacy and safety concerns. Lim raised concerns regarding how the TaipeiPASS system can allow administrators to view anything from library rental records, to medical information, when one visits public venues, and other information. Although new users do have to consent to the use of this information, Lim pointed out that most users will simply agree to the consent form without reading through it. 

The Taipei city government has responded by citing the stringency of its data security, while accusing Lim of simply making up charges. That being said, one notes that similar concerns have been raised regarding an electronic ID that the central government originally intended to roll out. 

Prominent civil society groups such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), the Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF), Open Culture Foundation (OCF), and Human Subject Protection Association (HSPA) were critical of the bidding process for the tender to develop the electronic IDs. To this extent, they were critical of the fact that the electronic ID would integrate information databases regarding medical care, insurance, education, commerce, and government administration, as tied to the ID, and would also include a digital ID certificate. This could prove dangerous if information from such a centralized database were to fall into the wrong hands. Civil society groups also took the view that the government had been less than transparent about what information would be integrated into the electronic ID. 

Such issues regarding information security and privacy concerns were largely put aside during the COVID-19 outbreak, though the central government claims that contact tracing data will be discarded and will not be retained for use after a certain period. Concerns were raised if the central government maintained such measures after the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, it may not be surprising that there is greater skepticism of measures rolled out by Ko Wen-je for Taipei, than measures that come directly from the central government. After all, such measures are not rolled out as part of a coordinated policy, but were primarily driven by efforts from Ko to upstage the central government. 

To this extent, the controversy points to the lack of legal frameworks regulating data privacy in Taiwan, as also raised during the electronic ID controversy. One expects continued controversies along such lines until the establishment of such a framework, this occurring in spite of the fact that the present administration frequently touted Taiwan as being a “digital democracy.” 

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