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Australia says no to Police on contact tracing app data — but Singapore turns its back on promise of TraceTogether data privacy

Staying true to the purpose of COVID-19 contact tracing, the Australian government rejected requests from police and other law enforcement authorities to access data within the country’s COVIDSafe app.

Attorney-general Christian Porter told The Guardian Australia on 23 April last year that “specific regulatory action will be taken to prevent such access for law enforcement agencies at both the commonwealth and state/territory level”.

“The government has already made the decision not to make any information collected by the app available for other purposes, including law enforcement investigations,” he said.

Caroline Edwards, examining acting secretary of the Senate select committee on COVID-19, said the same day that legislation or biosecurity declarations could prevent data from being obtained using a warrant or under a subpoena.

The Department of Health was “alive to the issue” of preventing such data being admitted to court, she added.

Police in Singapore empowered to obtain data from TraceTogether for investigations; data could be produced in court or used for trial if relevant

Meanwhile, in Singapore, it was revealed in Parliament on Monday (4 January) that the Singapore police are empowered to obtain any data under the CPC, including data from TraceTogether.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said this in response to Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza’s question on whether data from TraceTogether will be used for criminal investigations and what legal provisions and safeguards are present in using such data.

Mr Tan noted that authorised police officers are allowed to access TraceTogether data for authorised purposes.

“The Government is the custodian of the TT [TraceTogether] data submitted by the individuals and stringent measures are put in place to safeguard this personal data,” said the Minister.

“Examples of these measures include only allowing authorised officers to access the data, using such data only for authorised purposes and storing the data on a secured data platform,” he added.

According to Mr Tan, public officers who disclose such data without authorisation or misuse the data may be fined up to S$5,000 or jailed up to two years or both.

Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam asked if 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.”

“Authorised police officers may invoke then the Criminal Procedure Code … Powers to obtain this data for the purpose of a criminal investigation, and for the purpose of the safety and security of our citizens.

“Otherwise, TraceTogether data is indeed to be used only for contact tracing and for the purpose of fighting the COVID situation,” he added.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Tuesday said that while data from TraceTogether will be deleted at the end of police investigations if it is not of any particular use, such data “will have to be produced in court” when necessary.

Non-constituency MP Leong Mun Wai asked the Minister-in-charge for the Smart Nation initiative — responsible for overseeing the TraceTogether system — as to how many instances have involved police tapping on data from TraceTogether.

The minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, replied that as far as he is aware, TraceTogether data has been used in the investigation of one murder case in Singapore.

The Singapore Government, however, previously assured the public that TraceTogether will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing purposes.

In a press conference in June last year, Dr Balakrishnan and co-chair of the COVID-19 taskforce Minister Lawrence Wong claimed that TraceTogether is not a tracking device and that only a “small number of personnel have access to the data for contact tracing purposes”.

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