It has come to light that data stored by the TraceTogether system has been accessed by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) to aid with its investigations. As revealed by Minister of State for Home Affairs, Desmond Tan in Parliament on Monday, 4 January, the SPF have the power to obtain any data under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), including data from COVID-19 contact tracing system TraceTogether.
This revelation is disturbing because it directly convenes what authorities have said when the TraceTogether system was first implemented. Just circa six months ago, Co-Chair of the Multi-Agency Taskforce for Covid-19, Lawrence Wong had unequivocally stated at a press conference, together with Minister in charge of the smart nation initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan (Balakrishnan) that data collected by the system would only be used for the purposes of Covid-19 contact tracing.
In his speech in Parliament, Balakrishnan said that he had not considered the CPC when he earlier spoke about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards and that he had “sleepless nights wondering: Should I persuade my colleagues to change the law?”
While there is no way we can police the Minister’s sleeping habits, it is clear that his speech has not answered any of the crucial concerns that the public would have. For example, did the ministers know then about the right of the SPF to access such data and deliberately misled the public? Did the ministers even know that the SPF had such powers? Or is it an oversight – as in, they just forgot that the SPF had such powers?
None of the scenarios above is particularly reassuring because the end result is that the public has been either misled or lied to. And, even if the ministers had not set out to mislead the public, why did Balakrishnan not notify the public the moment he knew of the CPC application?
It is clear from his speech that he had known about the CPC application before the questions were raised by MPs in Parliament. He would also have known about the promises he had made to the public about how the data would only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing purposes only. Putting two and two together, Balakrishnan had enough time to notify the public about his mistake but chose not to – not till he had no choice but to admit it in Parliament because he was asked point-blank.
So, the best-case scenario is that the Minister made a mistake but chose not to reveal it until he was made to while the worst-case scenario is that the Ministers had deliberately omitted information to the public in the initial press conference. None of these scenarios builds trust with the public.
Looking at the comments online, it is also manifestly clear, that many do not trust what the authorities are saying. For instance, one reddit user, deadlyfaithdawn was quoted as saying:
“best part is he actually go on record to state that he found out about the use weeks ago. If you so frank, why didn’t you call a press conference then and frankly tell people that police have requested for TT data access and that according to Singapore law, CPC supercedes whatever promises you made previously?…..”
When directly asked by Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai (Leong) when he discovered that the promises he made to the public at the initial press conference were going to be affected by the CPC and whether or not Balakrishnan was apologising to the public, Balakrishnan skirted the issue with a seeming finesse.
Instead of answering the question, he went on a merry-go-round, describing his 20-year career in the House saying that he was “obsessively concerned with accuracy” and had “absolute adherence to honesty”, going on to say that when he has misspoken, he has and will say so.
However, if Balakrishnan is truly one that practices “absolute adherence to honesty”, why isn’t he answering Leong’s questions? If he is “obsessively concerned with accuracy”, why did he “not have the CPC in mind when he first spoke about the TraceTogether system”? Surely, someone so detail-oriented as he claims would have checked before making public promises no?
Try as Balakrishnan might to put a spin on his answers, and even if we were to give him the benefit of the doubt, there is no skirting the issue that he knew of the CPC application in advance of the Parliamentary session but he chose (for reasons best known unto himself) NOT to notify the public until he was asked point-blank in Parliament.
Is this the hallmark of a frank person who adheres to honesty?