SINGAPORE — Back in 2021, members of the public were shocked and disturbed by the revelation that the Government had used data from the TraceTogether (TT) for purposes other than contact tracing as previously promised.

For no apparent reason, People’s Action Party Member of Parliament, Mr Christopher de Souza filed a Parliamentary Question to ask the Minister for Home Affairs on 4 January 2021 whether TraceTogether data will be used for criminal investigations and, if so, what are the legal provisions and safeguards in using such data.

Minister of State for Home Affairs, Mr Desmond Tan, responding on behalf of the Minister, told the Parliament that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain any data, including TT data, for criminal investigations.

When asked if there would be a possibility of deletion of this information if the investigation does not yield anything or the investigation comes to a close, Mr Tan said, “Data will only be taken from the individual. In a criminal case where there is a suspect and a witness, we will extract the data from the witness. However, for individuals who are suspects or are under investigation, the data will not be extracted from them, for the purpose of security.”

Following the public outcry over the matter, Dr Vivian Balakirshan, the Minister who first assured the public that the TT data would only be used for the purposes of contact tracing in the COVID pandemic, addressed the Parliament, a day later, in an attempt to pacify the concerns of MPs and the public over the betrayal of trust.

Dr Vivian said:

Under section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the Police have the power to order anyone to produce data for the purposes of a criminal investigation. And the key word here is criminal investigation.

We have gone to great lengths to protect the privacy of all TraceTogether users in all normal use cases, but TraceTogether data is not exempt from section 20 of the CPC.

The Police can only do so – meaning can only ask for access – by requiring a person involved in or assisting a criminal investigation to produce either his smartphone or his token. Frankly, and I think Members know me well and I am always very frank. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier.

During the supplementary questions to Dr Vivian’s statement, Mr de Souza then asked if the data be deleted at the end of the investigations if it does not yield anything or at the end of the case.

The question was answered by Mr Shanmugam, who said, “If the data is of no particular use, yes, it will be deleted. Otherwise, it will have to be produced in Court… And in trial or use for trial purposes, even if not produced in Court.”

Then a month later, the Government moved an amendment bill on the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 to allow the use of data from TT for the purpose of criminal investigations and prosecution.

There, Mr Pritam Singh, the Leader of Opposition, asked about Police’s use of TraceTogether data and Non-constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Leong Mun Wai, asked when Police first accessed the TT data.

Mr Tan replied, saying that the Police have only requested for TT data once, for the murder that occurred at Punggol Field in May 2020, in line with their powers under the CPC.

“As the TT app was not installed in the suspect’s phone, there was no useful data obtained.” said Mr Tan.

As for the initial question from Mr de Souza in Jan, which was filed in January for no apparent reason? It might be explained by Dr Vivian’s answer to Mr Singh, where he shared that it was at the end of October 2020 when he became aware that what he said about TT was wrong.

Surajsrikan Diwakar Mani Tripathi, the perpetrator of the murder at Punggol Field, was subsequently found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment and caning in September 2022. No appeal is made by Surajsrikan.

And just yesterday, the Ministry of Health, in a press release, wrote, “The TT data pertaining to a murder case in May 2020 will be retained indefinitely. This is especially necessary for serious cases such as murder, where legal applications may be made to challenge the conviction or sentence many years after the case has concluded, and the Singapore Police Force (SPF) may be obliged to disclose the data. ”

Based on the various assertions from the Government and facts, we have the following points:

  1. TT Data will only be taken from the individual. In a criminal case where there is a suspect and a witness.
  2. Data will be deleted if there is no use.
  3. No useful info was obtained from Surajsrikan as the TT app was not installed on his phone.
  4. Surajsrikan is convicted without the use of TT data.

Given the above points, why is SPF indefinitely retaining the TT data, which cannot tie the murderer to the crime since he did not install the TT app? How could the data be relevant to the offence when Mr Tan has said in Parliament that there was no useful data obtained?

Is SPF just hoarding data for the sake of hoarding? And this act by SPF a reversal of what has been said by Ministers in Parliament over the matter of data privacy? Or is SPF just trying to flex its powers of unquestionable authority to the general public?

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