Allowing the use of TraceTogether data for the convenience of the police in solving crimes may not be a “good enough reason” to compromise the public trust needed to win the fight against COVID-19, given that the police have “more than sufficient” investigative tools to detect crimes, said Leader of the Opposition (LO) 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 was made to “formalise” the Government’s assurances that the digital contact tracing system for COVID-19, TraceTogether, can only be obtained by the police if the person was found to be involved in the seven categories of serious offences:
- Offences involving the use or possession of corrosive substances, offensive/ dangerous weapons, such as possession of firearms and armed robbery with the use of firearms;
- Terrorism-related offences under the Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act, Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act, and Terrorism (Suppression of Misuse of Radioactive Material);
- Crimes against persons where the victim is seriously hurt or killed such as murder, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, voluntarily causing grievous hurt (where the victim’s injury is of a life-threatening nature);
- Drug trafficking offences that attract the death penalty;
- Escape from legal custody where there is a reasonable belief that the subject will cause imminent harm to others;
- Kidnapping; and
- Sexual offences deemed to be serious or severe such as rape and sexual assault by penetration.
In Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Singh questioned whether TraceTogether data is vital in solving the crimes laid out in the Bill.
“There is little or no doubt that TraceTogether would make things more convenient for the police, but it is my view that convenience for the police may not be a good enough reason to compromise the trust necessary to win the COVID-19 ﬁght,” he noted.
The Workers’ Party (WP) chief pointed out that the police have “an abundance” of investigative tools, including technological tools like surveillance cameras CCTVs as well as tools that allow them to examine mobile phones and laptops containing massive amounts of data.
Aside from these tools, the police are also interviewing witnesses using conﬁdential informants, scrutinising the crime scene and collecting physical for forensic analysis.
“There is a legitimate view that these tools should be more than suﬃcient in detecting crime and securing convictions,” he noted.
To know whether these investigative tools are sufficient for the police, Mr Singh raised two questions with regards to the use of TraceTogether data in actual cases.
“A: For the one known case where TraceTogether was used, was the case solved in that a suspect has been identiﬁed or charged and how critical was TraceTogether data to solving the case?
“B: How many other times TraceTogether has been used for the seven categories of serious crimes so far?”
Given that there is “an equally legitimate view” that with the existing tools at their disposal, Mr Singh said the police may have “very little if any additional benefit” from using the TraceTogether data.
“I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers to my questions so that we can know for sure the answers will allow members of the public to appreciate the balance that is being struck between privacy and policing,” he added.
Citing the public outcry emerged after the revelation of the TraceTogether data use in criminal investigations, Mr Singh pointed out the need to compare the “likely cost” of compromising the use of such data to the nation’s fight against the global pandemic.
Though it was reported recently that TraceTogether signups had reached 80 per cent, he noted that the figures can give “a false sense of security”.
Mr Singh cited the Institute of Policy Studies’ report on 24 May last year, which indicated that 87 per cent of respondents agreed to impose strict surveillance on those who needed to be quarantined.
However, when it comes to the employment of CCTVs and cellphones to prevent the spread of COVID-19, only 49 per cent of respondents agreed to have their cell phone data tracked without their consent.
“Separately a few people, more than a few people I should say, have anecdotally shared online that they will use the TraceTogether app to gain entry to a place only to turn oﬀ Bluetooth immediately after entering.
“This clearly shows that a high level of downloads of the TraceTogether app does not necessarily translate to a high degree of continuous usage,” he noted.
Mr Singh pointed out that people choose to switch off their Bluetooth may not necessarily because of privacy concerns, as they could just want to save their phone battery. But if the IPS report is indicative, then “privacy is more than likely to matter”.
“It is, therefore, open to question whether the eﬃcacy of TraceTogether for contact tracing could be compromised because of the Government’s belated explanation on the use of TraceTogether data for investigative purposes,” he continued.
Mr Singh also asked whether the authorities are able to track the number of TraceTogether users who turn oﬀ their Bluetooth function after downloading the app, as well as those who turn it oﬀ after gaining entry to a building or premise.
“The answer to this question will determine whether TraceTogether is working as intended or whether the Government needs to comprehensively review the public buy-in and eﬀectiveness of the TraceTogether app and token,” he said.