“Assurances” and Oversights: Gov Should Honour Original Promise of TraceTogether Data Privacy

Yesterday I had a very eventful and rewarding day in Parliament debating the Bill on the use of Trace Together data (TT data). To be exact, the Bill is titled the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill. It has ring-fenced the 7 serious criminal offences where the TT data (including contact tracing data from SafeEntry and BluePass) where senior police officers with the rank of inspector and above can apply to access contact tracing data with the approval of the CID. The 7 offences are related to firearms, terrorism, murder, drug, escape from custody, kidnapping and sexual assault. Before this Bill, the police enjoy unfettered access to TT data under the powers given by the powerful Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

Overlooking the CPC, both Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean had promised that TT data would only be used for contact tracing at last year’s Jun and Oct parliamentary sittings. As Minister for the Smart Nation Initiative, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has accepted responsibility for the oversight.

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) voted against the Bill after considering the trade-offs between public trust and public health on one hand and public safety on the other. On public trust, we thought the Government ought to honour the original promise of confining the use of TT data to contact tracing, which would repair or even boost public trust. On public health, we are concerned that even allowing police access to TT data under the specific circumstances will have an adverse impact on the usage of the TT apps. Public health must take priority over public safety in a pandemic.

On public safety, the debate did not bring out conclusive information on why the TT data is crucial for police investigations. The one time the police tried to access the TT data was a murder case in May 2020. Even then, as Minister for Home Affairs Desmond Tan has stated in Parliament, the police could not get any useful data as the app was not installed on the suspect’s phone.

Since the police already has wide-ranging and broad powers under the CPC to investigate crimes, is it worthwhile to sacrifice public trust and efficacy of the TT programme just to get an incremental benefit by allowing police access even in these restricted circumstances?

The PSP thinks “No” and hence we objected to the Bill. A better bill would be to fully exempt the TT data from the CPC and then apologize for the oversight. In this way, the Government can both honour its promise and maintain the efficacy of the TT programme.

Of course, the Government had a different assessment of the situation. It stated that participation in the TT programme has continued to increase from 78% to 84% after the Jan 4 Parliament sitting, where it was first revealed that the police had accessed TT data. The Government takes this as an indication that Singaporeans has continued to support the Government despite its broken promise, and therefore the impact on public trust and public health are deemed to be not negative.

With that, the Government has opted to grab the TT data for public safety as one more “nice to have” investigation tool. Along this line of reasoning, the Bill suits the Government well. In addition, it did not need to give up too much of its powers under the CPC.

At the end of the day, it boils down to what Singaporeans want – justice is in the heart of the people (公道自在人心).

In our hearts of hearts, many would agree that Singaporeans should be more respected – a promise is a promise! The government should not use public safety as a justification to backtrack on its promises to Singaporeans. If the government continues down this path, then we will be going down a rather slippery slope in this age of rapid change where technological advances make it easier and easier for the Government to use technology to surveil its people.

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