Just yesterday, we heard from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that data from the COVID-19 contact tracing system TraceTogether can be obtained by the Singapore Police Force under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
This was revealed by the Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan in Parliament on Monday (4 January).
Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza raised the question of whether TraceTogether data will be used for criminal investigations and what legal provisions and safeguards are present in using such data.
Another question was raised by Workers’ Party (WP) MP Gerald Giam’s on whether the use of such data would violate the TraceTogether privacy statement, raising concern that this may reduce voluntary adoption of the TraceTogether token or app.
Mr Tan answered, “We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well.”
While Mr Tan assured that the use of such data is only for authorised purposes and storing the data on a secured data platform—highlighting the penalties for those who disclose such data without authorisation or misuse the data, bur we have to remember the assurances given by the authorities that the data from the TraceTogether app and token would not be used for anything else other than for the purposes of contract tracing.
Ministers assured that data generated by the TraceTogether app is purely for contact tracing
After reporting that the TraceTogether mobile application could not work well on certain mobile operating systems, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan revealed in Parliament that the Government is developing a “wearable and portable” device for contact tracing.
Other than noting the device that will be distributed to everyone in Singapore, he said that the people who still want to use the TraceTogether app will still be able to do so.
Following this announcement on 5 June, a petition was created on Change.org by a Singaporean mountain bike coach, Wilson Low, to voice against the wearable contact tracing device.
The petition was addressed towards the Government, describing how the authorities were planning to infringe the people’s rights to privacy, personal space, and freedom of movement. Over 50k individuals have since signed on the petition.
When asked if the TraceTogether data will be used for prosecution of offences in a press conference held on 8 June 2020, then-National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and co-chair of the COVID-19 Multi-Ministry taskforce stressed that digital data is not meant to be used to detect offences and breaches of rules, but rather for effective contact tracing.
He said, “I can’t imagine how a Bluetooth device can (for instance) detect somebody not wearing a mask, to begin with. There is no intention to use a TraceTogether app, or TraceTogether token, as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules,”
“The app and the device, plus SafeEntry combined, are meant to provide us with information in a timely manner so that we can do speedy, fast, and effective contact tracing.”
“it is not meant as a way to detect offences and breaches of rules.” said Wong.
Dr Balakrishan who was in the same press conference, immediately supported Wong’s statement by saying that the data generated by the TraceTogether app is purely for contact tracing.
Backtracking on TraceTogether privacy statement
Prior to Mr De Souza’s question, the government website about TraceTogether looked like this. Note the segment about how the data will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing.
After clarification was sought in Parliament, the below declaration was inserted into the TraceTogether token privacy statement.
“Also, we want to be transparent with you. TraceTogether data may be used in circumstances where citizen safety and security is or has been affected. Authorised Police officers may invoke Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) powers to request users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The Singapore Police Force is empowered under the CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations.”
It is pretty much hypocritical of the authorities to claim that it is being transparent in its update, given that the public would have been kept in the dark about the matter if not for the question raised by Mr De Souza.
Unless MHA comes out to say that this measure is only recently implemented — which clearly it isn’t — due to the fact that it is based on the existing CPC, wouldn’t it be safe to say that the two ministers misrepresented the facts to the public just to convince them that their privacy is protected?
Singapore politicians and civil servants behave the way that they do because ultimately they know that the voters will not hold them accountable for going against the assurances that they have made and being caught out for it.
As Minister Gan Kim Yong said in response to questions filed by Mr Perera over the Hepatitis C incident back in 2016, that instead of developing a blame culture, a learning culture needs to be developed. But with no repercussion in place—legal or political—it is very unlikely any lessons can be learnt by the elite ministers who are out of touch.
Considering this along with other incidents where the government had backtracked in their public statements, such as the assurance that there is no need for facemasks, can we really be expected to take the promises and assurances by Singapore politicians in blind faith?