The Government’s decision to allow police to obtain data from its COVID-19 contact tracing system TraceTogether for criminal investigations has sparked an uproar among netizens, with many saying that people were given “false promises” from the beginning.
This came after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed in Parliament on Monday (4 January) that the Singapore police are empowered to obtain any data under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), including data from TraceTogether.
“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.
Additionally, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament on Tuesday that TraceTogether data may also be used for trial purposes for relevant cases and may even be produced in court when deemed relevant.
He was responding to Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza’s question on whether data from TraceTogether will be deleted at the end of police investigations should it not yield anything relevant or significant to the case.
“If the data is of no particular use, yes, it will be deleted. Otherwise, it will have to be produced in court.”
Mr Shanmugam added that such data may also be used for trial purposes even if it is not produced in court.
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh posed a question on under what circumstances will the TraceTogether data be used in police investigations, given that “police investigations would by nature of our legislation comprised of a wide spectrum of offences”.
Mr Shanmugam replied that under Section 20 of the CPC, the police are authorised to recover or seek any information within the possession of a person as long as the process is “not excluded by some other written law”.
He cited the example of a murder case in which information that may be related to the victim and the victim’s family is available on the TraceTogether token or app.
“If police chose not to seek that information, you can imagine how the victim’s family, and indeed the rest of Singapore, might react to that situation. You could even argue that there can be a judicial review application in such a situation.
“However, given that the TraceTogether token is necessary for dealing with the pandemic, it is of national importance, and its purposes are to help us deal with the pandemic.”
Thus, the police’s approach “has been, and will be” that the use of TraceTogether data is “pretty much restricted to very serious offences”, said Mr Shanmugam.
More than 4.2 million people, or about 78 per cent of Singapore’s resident population, are now using the app or token, according to Education Lawrence Wong in Parliament on Monday.
However, many netizens pointed out that this was contrary to the Government’s previous assurances that TraceTogether will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing purposes.
This goes back to Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan’s remarks at a press conference in June last year, during which he 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”.
Penning their thoughts under the comment section of ST’s and CNA’s posts on the matter, netizens slammed the Government for its “lack of transparency” and for failing to inform the users beforehand that their data could be used in such a manner by law enforcement authorities.
Some netizens also commented on a thread in Reddit, saying that Singapore’s citizens “have been treated like fools” by the Government, as they were not informed of the possibility of TraceTogether data being obtained for criminal investigations.
One netizen pointed out that the Ministers should have called for a press conference to inform people that police are able to request TraceTogether data if they were to be “so frank” to the citizens as they claimed to be.
Others highlighted that the Government should define “serious offence” that can lead to TraceTogether data being obtained by the police.
They also pointed out that Dr Balakrishnan did not apologise for the matter.
“It’s plainly just saying – we missed it out, but guess what, no harm right? There’s no need to fuss,” said a commenter.