Govt error on TraceTogether data scope in police investigations raises questions on authorities’ perceived lack of empathy over public’s privacy concerns: Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh

The Government’s error on the extent to which data from TraceTogether can be used raises questions on the authorities’ perceived lack of empathy over the public’s privacy concerns, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Tuesday (2 February).

Mr Singh was speaking during the debate on the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, which was introduced by Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday.

The Bill covers offences such as terrorism-related crimes, murder, drug trafficking offences that attract the death penalty, kidnapping; and sexual offences deemed to be serious or severe such as rape and sexual assault by penetration, among others.

According to the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) in a statement on 8 January, the Bill aims to “formalise” assurances made by Dr Balakrishnan and Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam that data in the digital contact tracing solutions “can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing”.

Mr Singh said in Parliament on Tuesday: “A few Singaporeans have told me that if the Government had stated upfront the TraceTogether data would be used for the seven categories of serious crimes, only they would have been prepared to prioritise the use of TraceTogether.”

Even individuals who “have had residual privacy concerns” regarding the contact tracing system, he added, “could have been assuaged” if the Government had fleshed out “the processes and accountability regime” for using TraceTogether data in investigations in a detailed manner.

“It comes down to a question of trust [and] the perceived lack of empathy over the public’s privacy concerns and discomfort with sharing mobile phone data with the authorities without sufficient assurances,” said Mr Singh.

He also referenced Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher De Souza’s Parliamentary question on 4 January, in which Mr De Souza raised the question of whether TraceTogether data will be used for criminal investigations and what legal provisions and safeguards are present in using such data.

Mr Singh asked if the question was submitted before or after Dr Balakrishnan had become aware of how Section 20 of the CPC would govern the use of contact tracing data.

“These questions are important for the House to understand at what point the Government determined that its original representations on the use of TraceTogether were misleading, and whether it could have corrected the position and update the public on its own initiative,” he stressed.

Dr Balakrishnan earlier on Tuesday apologised for overlooking that Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code applies to TraceTogether data.

“I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused by my mistake,” he told the House.

Dr Balakrishnan, alongside Education Minister Lawrence Wong who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, said at a press conference on 8 June last year that data from both the TraceTogether app and token will not be used for anything other than for contact tracing.

On 5 June, Dr Balakrishnan gave the same response to MP Murali Pillai in Parliament when the latter questioned the confidentiality of the data collected.

The Minister reiterated — following a written response — that TraceTogether data is “stored only on your own phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH only if the individual tests positive for COVID-19”.

The data, said Dr Balakrishnan, “is only used for contact tracing”, adding that safeguards “including encryption” are present to protect the data “from malicious hackers”.

Should close contact data be required for contact tracing, he said, “only a small group of authorised officers in MOH will have access to it” and “all the public sector data protection rules will also apply”.

The proposed amendments are expected to come into force in the middle of this month should they be passed.

More to come – please refresh this page for updates.

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February 2021