Netizens slam govt lack of transparency in TraceTogether data use; highlight potential pitfalls

TraceTogether data would be used by the police in cases involving “very serious offences” said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Tuesday (5 January).

He was making a clarification following Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan’s answer to a parliamentary question the day prior, in which Mr Tan said that the police are empowered to access TraceTogether data under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan added that the TraceTogether data has been used by police once so far in a murder investigation.

Following Mr Tan’s statement on Monday, concerns were raised about privacy and security.

Dr Balakrishnan assured earlier in a multi-ministry taskforce press conference last June that TraceTogether data would only be used for contract tracing purposes.

However, Dr Balakrishan said in Parliament yesterday that he had not thought about the CPC when he made the earlier assurance.

“Frankly, and I think members know me well, and I am always very frank… Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier,” he admitted, adding that he has had sleepless nights since finding out about the CPC’s application to the data several weeks ago.

He went on to say that he considered persuading Parliament to change the law but decided against it after consulting with peers within and outside of the House.

He said, “I have come to the conclusion that right now, we are doing well. We are able to keep Singapore safe. We are able to keep and deal with the current crisis. And so long as this Government is able to maintain our reputation for openness, transparency, reliability, I think we are still on the right track.”

He also explained that the provisions of the CPC is not limited to TraceTogether data but extends to other sensitive data as well such as phone and banking records.

Predictably, netizens appear to be disconcerted with the clarifications given by Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam.

On Reddit specifically, many are upset over this “breach of trust” between the Singapore government and its people.

One user, in particular, pointed out that the ministers did not even consult or inform the public first about plans to access the data before carrying out such plans.

The user also slammed the police for being “incompetent” for not being able to solve a murder without the TraceTogether data.

Another person highlighted that this isn’t the first time such “flip-flopping” has happened.

A different user said that the majority of people will continue with life as usual despite this revelation due to the importance of contact tracing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The user also said they don’t think The Workers’ Party would harp on the matter in Parliament either as “neither side would want to be blame (sic) for it”.

Even so, a user noted that whether or not the majority lets the issue slide, the fact is that allowing TraceTogether data to be accessed for purposes other than contract tracing “infringes on the rights of the minorities and those fighting for them” such as activists.

In response to another user, one person commented that the government is setting a “scary precedent” that it can use a simple “blur excuse” when they are “caught making false statements to the public”.

There was at least one person who conceded to being a strong supporter of the authorities using the TraceTogether data for police purposes but was unhappy with the way it was done, describing it as “unethical and disrespectful to common rights”.

Yet another person, however, wondered if the issue is actually about individual liberty at all. Instead, they suggested that the problem here is about politicians not being transparent.

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January 2021