Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admits making a mistake, assures legislation limits TraceTogether data use – netizens’ “trust” remains an issue

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday (8 January) that he acknowledged making a mistake when characterising the use of TraceTogether data as “purely for contact tracing” last year.

Earlier on, it was revealed in Parliament that TraceTogether data can be obtained by the Singapore police under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) for criminal investigations.

Dr Balakrishnan has told the House on Tuesday (5 January) that he had not considered the CPC when he earlier spoke about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards at a press conference last June.

“In Parliament earlier this week, I acknowledged making a mistake when characterising the use of TraceTogether data last year,” said the Minister in a Facebook post yesterday.

“Together with Minister Shanmugam, I gave assurances that there would be utmost restraint in the use of TraceTogether data in criminal investigations, and restricted to only serious offences,” he added.

His remarks followed the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office’s (SNDGO) announcement that the Government will introduce legislation setting out seven categories of serious offences for which TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations.

These include offences related to terrorism, drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping and serious sexual offences such as rape.

It added that TraceTogether data cannot be used in the investigations, inquiries or court proceedings of any other offence besides these seven categories.

“We will now pass legislation to formalise this commitment,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

“The legislation will specify that personal data collected through digital contact tracing solutions can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing, except where there is a clear and pressing need to use that data for criminal investigation of serious offences,” he added.

Penning under the comment section of his post, speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin said that he “was not surprised” that the authorities would be allowed to access TraceTogether data for serious crimes and “when it warrants it”.

“I have no doubts that data in TT [TraceTogether] would be used only for serious crimes but this piece of legislation would be help ensure this by law. We will let Parliamentarians decide if this should be so,” he wrote.

Though many netizens expressed gratitude on the Minister’s effort to ensure such legislation is being taken to limit the use of TraceTogether data, some netizens reiterated that “trust” in the Government remains an issue.

One netizen wrote that Dr Balakrishnan’s effort to ensure such data only subject to the CPC does not help to convince the citizens.

“Even if you have in good faith overlooked the CPC, there is no reason all other relevant units have went incognito especially when your promise was broadcast nationwide,” he said.

Another netizen stressed that TraceTogether data is not the “critical factor” but “trust”. He noted that such mistakes should be corrected by exempting the use of TraceTogether data in criminal investigations, as it is “crossing the line”.

“I think many people (including myself) trust the current government but once in a while we’d also like to see the government exercise restrain – to place trust over operational expediency,” he wrote.

Another netizen highlighted that the legislation does not hide the fact that “a clear promise was broken” as the information on TraceTogether data use in criminal investigations was only revealed after a parliamentary question was raised.

“If you truly acknowledged your error, go one step further – Put in legislation that the TT [TraceTogether] programme will be ended post-pandemic,” he wrote.

One netizen noted that Singaporeans “do not have much choice” in the use of TraceTogether data given that the programme has been mandated.

“As much as I trust the government in the handling of the pandemic response, this feels like a betrayal and a break of trust,” he wrote.

Another netizen claimed that many users have decided to disable their phone’s Bluetooth, and will only rely on the tokens when the legislation has been passed by the Government.

“This is not about ‘if you do nothing, nothing to worry about’, it is absolutely about the trust we had and it being broken. What’s the point of listing 7 ‘serious crimes’ and it seems like you could just change it anytime we wish?” said the netizen.

One netizen demanded Dr Balakrishnan to make a formal apology in Parliament, instead of just acknowledging his mistake and presenting the Government’s next action.

 

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