Protecting Singaporeans’ Privacy: Objection to TraceTogether Bill

This speech was given in response to the TraceTogether Bill, and delivered on 9 February 2021.

Mr Leong Mun Wai (Non-Constituency Member): Mr Speaker, Sir, we all know by now that the merit of this Bill rests on tradeoff between public trust and public health on one side and public safety on the other.

Public trust in the Government is the cornerstone of Singapore’s political system. Our people’s trust in the Government enabled the first-generation leaders to transform Singapore from a third-world country to a first-world country. This very same trust enabled the Government to combat and curtail the SARS crisis in 2003 and the H1N1 crisis in 2009. 

Sir, I would like to state that the Progress Singapore Party, or PSP, fully supports the Government’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and we were among the first to urge the Government to make mask-wearing mandatory in the early stages of the pandemic.  

However, it would be remiss of me not to state that our contact tracing programmes intrude extensively upon our people’s privacy.

SafeEntry collects an individual’s NRIC, contact number, their location, whenever they enter a building and even how long an individual stays in a location, while TraceTogether collects who that individual was in close proximity to and for how long. The two programmes together allow the Government to easily create a map where an individual goes and who he associates with.

Singaporeans have long accepted some erosion over their civil rights and by extension their privacy, in order to ensure public safety. However, when the Government announced the TraceTogether token in June 2020, there was a public backlash against TraceTogether. Over concerns that TraceTogether will invade their privacy and the collected data will be used for non-contact tracing purposes.

But in the end, our people trusted both Minister Balakrishnan’s and Senior Minister Teo’s promises that the collected data would only be used for contact tracing, which was why TraceTogether adoption finally surpassed 70% in December 2020. This trust was broken during the January parliamentary session, when not only did the Government admitted that TraceTogether data was accessible to the Singapore Police Force for the purposes of criminal investigations, it was already actually assessed by the Police to investigate a murder.

Sir, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair. This broken promise has broken the public’s trust in the Government. It is because of this broken trust that we are gathered here today debating a Bill that has to be passed under a Certificate of Urgency, which means that all the three Readings of the Bill would have to be done in this Parliament Sitting and there will be little time to consider its implications carefully. 

Actually, to start repairing the broken trust, the Government must first answer questions about the follow-up process around this episode. Like when did the Police first access the TT data? When the TT data was accessed, did the Police consider that they will be breaking the promise that the Government gave to not use the TT data for anything other than for the purposes of fighting the pandemic?

Has the TT data been accessed only once as Minister Balakrishnan has stated in the previous sitting, or more than once? If more than once, how many cases exactly has the Police actually accessed? When was Cabinet first informed that TT data was accessed in a direct breach of the promise they gave? Did Cabinet then gave instructions to the Police not to access TT data in light of their repeated and public promises?

These five questions apply with equal force to the data collector under the SafeEntry programme, which has so far attracted less attention. To proceed with this Bill, without answering these questions will leave serious doubts in the public’s mind over whether this Bill is truly to rebuild public trust in a Government or to rubber stamp the Police actions after the fact. It is therefore in the spirit of rebuilding public trust that the Progress Singapore Party rises in opposition to this Bill. Allow me to elaborate.

As the PSP Secretary-General, Dr Tan Cheng Bock has stated, backtracking is not good politics and it erodes the confidence and social compact of our citizens in our political institutions. At this point in the pandemic, the last thing we need is for our citizens to lose faith in the Government and start second-guessing the Government’s motives whenever in announces new measures to control the COVID-19 virus, especially when other countries around the world are experiencing new outbreaks.

The Government is compromising public health and public trust for some benefit in public safety by passing this Bill. Public trust in TraceTogether has been eroded by this broken promise. What I found when speaking to residents is that they are now leaving their TraceTogether tokens at home when they go out. And some are now refusing to use TraceTogether altogether.

This will compromise the effectiveness of contact tracing efforts, and this is exceptionally dangerous in light of the uptick in community cases since Singapore’s move into Phase Three.

The SPF has already broad powers to assess documents, things, data, computers and even decryption data under the Criminal Procedure Code for the purposes of investigating crimes. How much is the incremental benefit, from a set of data that exists only for 25 days? Besides I find it quite unbelievable that such criminals would carry their TraceTogether tokens when committing such crimes, especially now that the Government has announced the TT data is accessible by the Police. 

Sir, the challenge of a democratic Government is to use innovative technology for public safety, but at the same time, not intruding into the privacy of its citizens too much, not in using any technology that is available. The Government’s biggest priority now should be to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and persuade as many people as possible to use TraceTogether. This must be the call and primary purpose. Any other purpose that compromises on this primary purpose and cause people to reconsider using TraceTogether must be set aside.

Sir, the PSP is not objecting to this Bill for the sake of objecting. We have thought of supporting it with some changes, but to trade off public trust in public health measures, which must be of utmost priority in a pandemic crisis, for public safety, is too much to give for us, after much consideration.

And the complete ring-fencing of contact tracing data, keeping it solely for public health objective, is not unprecedented. The Australian government has publicly committed that the data collected by the contact tracing application cannot be accessed by the Police and is to be used only for contact tracing purposes, and has already passed legislation to that effect. 

We must also keep in mind that the COVID-19 pandemic will neither be the first nor the last pandemic that our country will have to deal with. Any action the Government takes to deal with this pandemic be it to prioritise public health and trust or public safety will significantly impact our people’s trust and confidence in the Government’s action in future pandemics and other unforeseen calamities.

Therefore, when all the various issues are considered, passing this Bill may actually run against the Government’s objective of rallying everybody together to fight the pandemic which should be our top priority at this moment in time.

In conclusion, Sir, this Bill does not go far enough to assure our citizens that the Government will keep its promises and is insufficient to restore public trust in the Government during this pandemic. The Progress Singapore Party therefore stands opposed against this Bill and calls upon the Government to keep to his original promise by fully exempting contact tracing data from the CPC.

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