The Workers’ Party (WP) is “prepared to support” the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill to allow TraceTogether data to be used for police investigations in exceptional cases as outlined in the bill, said party chief Pritam Singh in Parliament on Tuesday (2 February).
Mr Singh, who is also Leader of the Opposition, said in a speech during the debate of the bill in the House that the main reason the party is prepared to support the bill is “because the exceptions constitute a significant reduction of the wide ambit of Section 20 of the [Criminal Procedure Code (CPC)]”.
“In other words, Singaporeans’ right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it,” said the Aljunied GRC MP.
Mr Singh stressed the WP’s view that the country’s first priority should be tackling the public health and economic effects of the pandemic, adding that anything which might compromise this priority “has to give way unless they are overwhelmingly good reasons”.
The opposition politician did, however, also note his personal preference that the TraceTogether data be used only for contact tracing purposes, as per the Government’s original assurances.
The MP explained, “This is because of some Singaporeans’ residual concerns over privacy and the established discomfort about sharing cell phone data”.
“I am of the view that such an approach would also engender greater confidence given that a public conversation on privacy has hitherto not been ventilated in a significant way in Singapore,” he added.
The introduction of the debated Bill by Minister-in-charge for Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan — which took place on Monday — followed his assurances and those of Minister of Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam earlier this month that data from TraceTogether will be used only in police investigations involving serious offences.
According to the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) in a statement on 8 January, the Bill aims to “formalise” the said assurances.
It is not, however, “in the public interest to completely deny the Police access to such data, when the safety of the public or the proper conduct of justice is at stake”, said the Office.
Thus, if a serious criminal offence has been committed, the police “must be able to use this data to bring the perpetrators to justice, seek redress for the victims, and protect society at large”, said SNDGO on why an exception is made for criminal investigation of serious offences.
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.