On Friday evening (8 January), a press release announced that urgent legislation is set to be passed in February to limit the usage of personal data obtained from digital contact tracing solutions TraceTogether and SafeEntry.
The upcoming introduction of the proposed law, according to the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), is aimed to “formalise” the said assurances and to specify that data in the digital contact tracing solutions “can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing”.
SNDGO said that the proposed law will be introduced in the next Parliament sitting in February on a Certificate of Urgency.
The Office noted that Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and Minister-in-charge for Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan held a public consultation on Friday with members of the press, the legal fraternity, technology experts, and academia on Friday to hear their views on the matter. It is, however, unknown as to who these individuals are.
SNDGO’s statement on the upcoming proposed law came after public outcry against the disclosure regarding how TraceTogether data could be used in police investigations and — as stated by Mr Shanmugam in Parliament — may even be produced in court or used at trial when relevant, contrary to previous assurances that the data will not be utilised beyond COVID-19 contact tracing.
Contrary to what some netizens are claiming the move to introduce such legislation to be, this is not a sign that the People’s Action Party (PAP) administration is being transparent.
Rather, it is simply a frantic attempt to arrest a situation where public trust in the PAP ministers is on a sharp downward spiral due to the misrepresentation made to the public.
Penning their thoughts on various forums such as TODAY‘s comment section and Reddit, many netizens said that the sudden change in the use of TraceTogether data has sparked trust issues among users towards the Government.
One netizen commented that her trust towards the Government has been “eroded” as the Government backtracked on its initial promise that the TraceTogether data would solely be used for COVID-19 contact tracing.
“I didn’t blindly sign up for ‘it is for the greater good’ spew. Trust has been placed upon the govt, and they should’ve honoured it,” she said.
It would have been a different story if this proposed legislation was introduced on Monday following the revelation made by Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan — in response to Holland-Bukit Timah MP Christopher de Souza’s question — that police are empowered by the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to access data from TraceTogether for criminal investigations.
Alternatively, things may have been different if the proposed law was introduced when Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan made assurances the next day that data from TraceTogether will be used only in police investigations involving serious offences.
This sudden announcement makes it pretty clear that the administration is only now grasping the extent of the damage to the public trust as a result of their misrepresentation.
It has been exactly six months since various Ministers, particularly Dr Balakrishnan, assured members of the public that the data will only be used for contact tracing in June last year.
Why didn’t anyone from the Ministry of Law, the Ministry of Home Affairs — or even political figures such as the Speaker of Parliament who was not surprised that the data could be accessed — correct the mistake during this six months that the Ministers had made in assuring that the data will not be used in any other way other than contract tracing?
It is clear that everyone in Government was content with the misrepresentation persisting as long as no one discovers it. And it could be very well hypothesised that the Government had to make this misrepresentation known due to the existing use or access of the data in one murder case which would have eventually been known, rather than to be questioned by members of the alternative parties in Parliament.
It is amazing how some netizens have applauded the act of passing the legislation as the Government’s way of being transparent when it has never apologised for the misrepresentation, as seen in Dr Balakrishnan’s response to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai when asked.
Further, the Smart Nation Initiative only inserted the clarification of the Police’s power to access the data after the matter had been brought up in the Parliament — yet, the Government still had the audacity to claim that it was being transparent.
So let us call a spade a spade — the administration is merely backtracking on its claim that data from the TraceTogether can be accessed by the Police under the CPC by making this concession to limit the access to just the seven offences — for now — due to the public outrage of being lied to.
There is nothing admirable about the actions of the Ministers so far, as they have constantly been trying to justify their words and actions.
What members of the public should have learnt from this incident — for those who still held blind faith in the words of politicians — is that no assurance can be trusted than what is written in black and white.
Words are just words, unless they are carved into law.