Government agencies sometimes have to disclose personal data in order to correct inaccuracies and provide an accurate picture of a complaint in order to maintain public trust and to serve all citizens effectively, said Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary in Parliament on Monday (3 January).
This comes after the incident last December when the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board disclosed the personal information of a woman suffering from lupus who had publicly but anonymously voiced her ire with the agency in relation to her struggles with withdrawing her savings in order to pay for her medical expenses.
Following the disclosure, the woman commented on the CPF Board‘s clarification Facebook post, asking it not to mislead readers and wrote what CPF Board got it wrong in regards to her case.
Dr Puthucheary said, “Government agencies sometimes need to disclose personal data in the public interest to counter inaccuracies about the government’s processes or policies contained in publicised complaints or petitions, in particular when it is the complainant who has called public attention to the case.”
He explained that not correcting these inaccuracies about government process and policies could mislead people into making ill-informed decisions that could be detrimental to them.
Noting that disclosure of personal data by government agencies are “limited in scope”, the minister laid out three guiding principles in the matter which serve to safeguard personal data from unnecessary disclosure.
First, is that personal data will be disclosed only if the agency’s clarification is disputable or insufficiently clear without the disclosure of such data.
Second, the personal data being disclosed has to be specific enough to provide a full picture of the issue at hand to enable the complainant to challenge the government’s account of the case based on the facts provided.
Finally, Dr Puthucheary says that care is taken not to disclose personal data that is irrelevant to the case.
“However, on occasion, it will be necessary to disclose the identity of the person involved in the case even when the publicised complaint itself has been anonymised,” added the minister.
“This is to remove any ambiguity in the government’s statement of the facts and settle any doubts over the matter conclusively in the minds of the public.”
Following that, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Associate Professor Walter Theseira noted his concern that such publication of personal would discourage people from reaching out help.
He asked if the government would consider implementing a protocol which would require agencies to first get the complainant to agree to the publication of a statement of clarification by the agency. Assoc. Prof Theseira suggested that the agency could then clarify matters without the person’s consent only as a last resort.
Dr Puthucheary responded, “The issue at hand is of course that these types of public declarations, whether anonymised or not, are going to be unusual in nature. There is something about the case or the complainant or the interaction which doesn’t quite fall into a standard operating procedure not lend itself to a protocol. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
He explained that it is also “inappropriate” to constraint the agency’s response to inaccurate or outright false public statement which could open itself up to manipulation, ambiguity, and disinformation, either deliberate or inadvertent.
The minister asserted, “The bottom line is that should a complaint of this nature occur in public, associated with this information and which impacts the way in which government processes, government policies that serve citizens are being misrepresented, we should expect to reply in public and disclose information so that we can set the record straight and make sure that Singapore and Singaporeans are well informed.”
Following from that, NMP Anthea Ong asked if there are channels for citizens who want to seek redress against the government for what they might deem as unfair public disclosure given that the government is not bound by the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA).
Dr Puthucheary answered that there are a number of channels and feedback routes, from physical touch points such as service centres and MPs to online channels such as the OneService app and emails of quality service managers.
However, he added, “PDPA notwithstanding and my answer notwithstanding, none of this prevents or is meant to discourage a citizen from seeking redress from a complaint.”
He continued, “It is merely that should a complaint occur in the public space and as a result of that complaint, the public has been misinformed, inaccuracies have been stated, then those inaccuracies have to be stated in the public in a way that is unambiguous and robustly explains the facts to everybody.”