Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister in charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (Balakrishnan), has uploaded a lengthy post on his Facebook page alongside the video of his speech in Parliament.
Given that authorities are currently under fire for going back on their earlier promises of how data collected through the TraceTogether system (TT) will be used, it is understandable for the Minister to be defensive. After all, it was him, together with the co-chair of the Multi-Ministry taskforce for COVID-19, Lawrence Wong, who had previously publicly reassured everyone that the data collected would not be used outside of Covid-19 contact tracing.
Balakrishnan took great pains to stress the importance of contact tracing in Singapore.
“First point: Contact tracing is absolutely essential for the control of COVID-19. We need to quickly identify everyone who has been exposed or potentially exposed to a patient who is infected in order to provide the necessary care to this close contact and to reduce the probability of them passing on the virus… We have today in Singapore, perhaps the most successful contact tracing programme in the world with a TT participation rate of 78%. This is one of the key reasons for our current good control of the COVID-19 situation in Singapore today.”
However, is there really a need to say all this at this juncture?
No one disagrees with the need for effective contact tracing. Neither is anyone knocking Singapore’s success at contact tracing. The issues are not about the necessity for contact tracing and Singapore’s success hitherto at so doing is irrelevant. What is at stake here is the use of the collected data without the consent of those whose data has been collected.
I may have consented to my data being collected for the purposes of pandemic contact tracing. But I have not consented to my data being used carte blanche for anything the Government deems appropriate. While this may just be the police now, what is to say that it can’t extend beyond criminal investigations?
Of course, authorities are arguing that it is just the police that we are passing the data to and that such data is being used for our safety. Again, however, that is missing the point because which objective body is in place to ensure that our data is not misused? On whose judgement is it deemed acceptable for the data to be shared?
By using the success Singapore has had so far in contact tracing and the importance of contact tracing in managing Covid-19 as an answer as to concerns about such data being passed on to the police is disingenuous. An exercise in fudging the issues and confusing the public – using lots of different and irrelevant information to distract from the real issues at hand.
Balakrishnan then moves on to talk about the Government having “been conscious of the need to protect personal privacy“, elaborating on the various security measures the Government has taken to ensure that the data is secure.
But, yet again, the Minister is missing the point. No one is querying how securely the data is stored at this juncture. What we are querying is who has the official capacity (outside the scope of pandemic contact tracing) to access that data. In other words, the concerns at the point are not about data security but about data accessibility by authorities.
By talking about data encryption and coding, Balakrishnan is obfuscating the underlying issues!
The biggest show stopper, however, is the justification for why the public has not been misled at all.
“Third point: On legal provisions. Under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the Police have the power to order anyone to produce data for the purposes of a criminal investigation. The key word here is criminal investigation…..This application of the CPC is not unique to TT data. Other forms of sensitive data, for example phone or banking records, which may be protected by specific privacy laws, are also nevertheless subject to the provision of the CPC. And from time to time, the Police have done so, with proper safeguards, and with the good outcomes that Singaporeans have come to expect from our police investigations.“
In other words, we have not lied to you. That provision was always there. It just didn’t cross my mind that it would be used in this way.
Firstly, if a minister did not know that the data could be used under the CPC, how would we, the public know? Isn’t it incumbent on you as the minister to do your research and tell us all the pitfalls? Your failure to do think about it is your fault and merits an apology because you have caused us to be misled.
The Minister’s comparison of TT data to banking and phone records is not appropriate. Banking or phone records relate to a specific transaction. Tracing where I have gone is an ongoing series of events — not quite the same thing. By likening these examples, the Minister is illogically dismissive at best and intentionally misleading at worst.
To close off, the Minister seemingly attempts the tried and tested method of instilling fear.
“There may be serious crimes like murders or terrorist incidents where the use of TT data in police investigations may be necessary, in the public interest. The Police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice, and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans. Especially in very serious cases, and where lives are at stake, it is not reasonable for us to say that certain classes of data should be out of reach of the Police. This power – on the part of the Police – to access data must be exercised judiciously, and with utmost restraint.“
Yet, this is the same police force that has stormed the offices of Lim Tean and Thum Ping Tjin, showed up at the houses of Teo Soh Lung and Terry Xu unannounced and charged Jolovan Wham just for holding a smiley face — all things much less dangerous than potential violence or danger. How then can we really police how the police use such data?
The Minister states that he wants to “assure Singaporeans that [their] confidence is not misplaced.” However, isn’t the best way to do that to firstly apologise for misleading the public (whether intentionally or not is not even relevant for the apology) and secondly to at least have a Parliamentary debate and vote as to whether or not the CPC should have that power?