Fighting Covid-19 in Vietnam: Striking a Delicate Balance Between Public Safety and Privacy

The relative success of Vietnam’s Covid-19 contact tracing app has sparked concerns about the privacy of users. Currently, however, app users are wont to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

A couple by the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi on January 31, 2020. Vietnam rolled out its contact-tracing app, Bluezone, designed to detect Covid-19 exposure in April this year. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen, AFP)

Dien Nguyen An Luong

Benjamin Hu

21 August 2020

Determined to avert another widespread lockdown when another Covid-19 wave hit Vietnam in late July, the authorities have swung into action to contain the spread of the virus. Hence their determination to enlist public participation in downloading Bluezone, a Covid-19 contact-tracing app.

Rolled out in mid-April, Bluezone is among dozens of contact-tracing apps built globally to mine information related to potential exposure. Thanks to GPS and/or Bluetooth technology, these apps can access users’ personal information, their location, and the people they have been in contact with. The contact histories are shared with the authorities for the purpose of documentation.

Given privacy concerns, the global race to push out such apps has outrun public trust. Bluezone has not been battle-tested; it was launched at a time when Vietnam had almost succeeded in defeating the second wave of the pandemic. But almost right after the latest wave stroke back Vietnam, the authorities, including Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, wasted no time calling on the public to download the app. The target is ambitious: 50 million active users out of a population of 97 million.

The call has been met with unusually eager public acceptance. According to data from mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower as of mid-July, Vietnam’s adoption rate of the app was as low as 0.4 per cent of the population, meaning just around 390,000 people downloaded it. But since the latest wave later that month, nearly 16 million (or 16.4 per cent) have done so, based on official government figures.

A review of contact-tracing apps in six Southeast Asian countries ranked Vietnam below Singapore in terms of privacy communications and overall marks and in the same league as Thailand and the Philippines. 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 will 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.

authoritarian governments 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 prize here – access to citizens’ private information.

But what has been glossed over since could raise some hackles: the authors of the Oxford study said in June that their findings have 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.

This has prompted several important questions: Why does the Vietnamese government keep beating the drums about the benefits of its contact-tracing app but choose to cherry-pick the data that is critical to public understanding and discussion of it? Why do the authorities need such a massive amount of data on personal information without being transparent about their subsequent application?

As experts have repeatedly warned, authoritarian governments 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 prize here – access to citizens’ private information.

Such a conclusion is preliminary, and even unfair. Even if it is true, many Vietnamese do not mind giving up a modicum of privacy if it means saving lives. Seen in such a light, any discussion of privacy rights at this point is a luxury and smacks elitism.

Vietnam’s Bluezone app: In the (Covid-19) zone

The public sentiment online in response to the call to download Bluezone has been positive overall despite concerns about privacy issues. A total of 400 online posts were collected on the topic of Bluezone between June 16 and August 19, and thereafter filtered for relevance and as well as to focus only on comments to analyse online public sentiment. We analysed nearly 180 relevant social media posts. Of these, 20 top keywords dominated online conversations pertinent to the issue. The keywords were found in numerous online comments aimed at encouraging people to download the app

The three keywords that got mentioned the most were “bao ve cong dong” (protect the community), “bao ve minh va cong dong” (protect yourself and the community) and “yeu nuoc” (patriotism). The keyword “rui ro” (risks) was least mentioned.

The Vietnamese people have always been highly compliant to drastic measures enacted by the government to contain the pandemic. The positive response to the Bluezone app on social media seems to indicate that this receptivity resonates in the online sphere.

The number of social media posts made on the Bluezone app has seen sudden and exponential growth since mid-July, from just below 10 and reaching a total of 180 by mid-August. This coincides with government’s call for citizens to download the app and subsequent surge in citizens’ responses on social media.

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

It is their unusually extraordinary level of transparency in governance and public communications since the pandemic broke out that have enabled the Vietnamese authorities to win public hearts and minds. It would thus be a risky bet for the government to gamble such otherwise unlikely transparency away on some insidious scheme.

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

Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong  is a Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Mr Benjamin Hu is a research officer at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/126

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.