It is concerning to read that data from the COVID-19 contact tracing system TraceTogether can be obtained by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). On a primary level, this revelation breeds distrust because it seems to be in direct contravention to what Ministers have said earlier when the TraceTogether app and token were first being introduced.
In a press conference last year, Co-Chair of the Multi Ministry Taskforce for COVID-19 Lawrence Wong (Wong) had specifically said that there were “no intentions to use a TraceTogether app or TraceTogether token as a means of picking up breaches of existing laws“.
Looking at Wong’s body language when asked the question, it also gave the appearance that the thought that the TraceTogether system could be used for anything apart from COVID-19 related contact tracing could not be further from his mind.
Yet, just a few months later, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan has dropped the bombshell that the TraceTogether system can be used for purposes outside of COVID-19 contact tracing.
This is a drastic U-turn in a very short space of time and can erode trust between the Government and the public. Questions on the intentions of the Government such as – “Did the Government always intend for the TraceTogether system to be used for other purposes but had intentionally misled the public at the start in order to get their initial acceptance?”
Secondly, the use of the TraceTogether system for anything apart from COVID-19 related purposes is a slippery slope. If we allow the SPF to use the data collected, what’s next?
While the pandemic is currently at the forefront of global concern, it bears remembering that powers granted now will not be easily clawed back post-pandemic. We must therefore be mindful about how these powers are being extended to non-COVID uses. Otherwise, we can slowly descend into a police state where nothing is private anymore.
Even Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan has confessed to “sleepless nights” on the prospect.
It may start with criminal investigations which could be palatable given that it may help make Singapore an even safer place. But what of crimes like criminal defamation which could be used to suppress worthy critics? Where does it end and who will police the boundaries if we allow this now?
Thirdly, how are we to monitor how such data is to be handled outside the scope of COVID-19 purposes?
Minister for Law and Internal Affairs K Shanmugam attempted to assure the public that such data will not be misused by saying that data from TraceTogether will be deleted at the end of police investigations if it is not of any particular use. However, questions still remain as to who determines whether or not a data is of any particular use?
Is it solely down to the police to determine and if so, can we trust their objectivity or processes? Looking at the botch ups the Parti Liyani case threw up plus the glaring absence of a committee of inquiry on that matter, can we rely solely on the discretion of the police?
While I am not suggesting that the police have nefarious intentions, it is noteworthy that without an objective set of criteria and a process that can withstand third party scrutiny, there is always the danger of unconscious biases and human error.
The TraceTogether system was rolled out to manage the coronavirus. The virus will not go on forever. Perhaps, we should respect the initial intentions behind that system and leave it firmly within the confines of pandemic management and not use it for anything else.