An apology for TraceTogether data access would be nice, but improving govt coordination is better

Better coordination with Singapore's legal, security and technology arms of the government could have led to a more thorough explanation of the limits of TraceTogether's privacy policy.

Sulaiman Daud | January 10, 2021, 04:33 PM

I think TraceTogether is a good thing. There's a deadly global pandemic, and we need an effective contact tracing system.

My mother queued up for quite some time to collect the tokens when the government first rolled them out.

I picked the ugliest-looking one, hid it in the deepest, darkest corner of my bag and promptly forgot about it. Job done.

One day I went out without my bag and wanted to watch a movie, and the lady seated at the check-in desk kindly explained that I needed to download the app before I would be allowed into the theatre.

After a while, I figured it out. And I've been using it ever since.

Contact tracing extremely important in fighting a pandemic

Either way, app or token, TraceTogether is extremely valuable when it comes to contact tracing, which is in turn one of the most potent weapons that local public health officials have against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even as vaccines are finally being rolled out, we will need to keep up a rigorous testing and tracing regime again to keep infections low as possible and prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

Given what we know about how Covid-19 spreads, we know that prolonged exposure to an infected person raises the chances of infection.

So GovTech worked on a programme that used Bluetooth proximity data to determine if you spent an extended period near someone with Covid-19.

Anyone can see that this dramatically increases the effectiveness of contact tracing.

People don't tend to remember every single place they've been, let alone every person they've interacted with, let alone every stranger who happened to be in the same room as them. Interviews with infected people would be slow at best, and incomplete at worst.

Now that the highly transmissible UK strain of Covid-19 has been detected in Singapore, the urgency to test and trace is even more apparent, even as more people get vaccinated.

Assumed all along the police had access to TraceTogether data, as with most things

If we can agree on the importance of TraceTogether, let's address the elephant in the room -- did any of us expect that TraceTogether would be kept out of the reach of the police and the security services?

Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said he was speaking "frankly as possible" in Parliament on Jan. 5 when he said he had not thought about about how the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) applied to TraceTogether data.

So let me be as frank as he was. When various public officials said that TraceTogether data would only be used for contact tracing purposes, I added a little mental asterisk to that statement.

That asterisk read "...unless the police need it for security reasons."

Let's not play coy here. We know the country we live in. We know the primacy and importance of internal security in the eyes of the government and the public. We know that some laws lend the authorities additional powers in times of emergency.

For example, the POFMA website states that regular correction directions do not require the removal of posts, but makes an exception for "more serious cases."

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party, when he said that Vivian was speaking in good faith.

But it is not in my nature to believe that TraceTogether data was to be exempt from police work.

Better internal coordination of communications

If that's the case, then we face an uncomfortable truth to the TraceTogether saga.

During the development of TraceTogether, it appears that not one person in GovTech and the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office thought about whether the data would be subject to the CPC.

Or if they did, their concerns were not adequately addressed or followed-up immediately.

Because when Vivian went before the nation and told everyone that the data would only be used for contact tracing, he was not briefed about the implications of the CPC, or it slipped his mind at that point.

Otherwise, he could have added a qualifier, such as "subject to existing laws".

Vivian later said:

"So, I'll tell you very frankly I did, you know after I realised that the CPC applied to this. I did think, I did have sleepless nights wondering. Should I try to persuade my colleagues to change the law.

But having thought about it, discussed, consulted people both within and outside this House, I've come to the conclusion that right now we are doing well. We're able to keep Singapore safe, we're able to keep and deal with the current crisis."

When exactly did that realisation happen, how did it happen and could it have been announced earlier?

Or did the police informed their SmartNation colleagues about this discrepancy when they requested access to the TraceTogether data for the murder investigation?

Singaporeans expect a certain amount of bureaucracy in government affairs, but at the same time, we really hope that the various agencies are working together effectively, especially when it comes to a nationwide programme like TraceTogether.

Coordinate and communicate

Perhaps the entire brouhaha, which even made it to international news outlets, could have been headed off had GovTech and the Ministry of Home Affairs coordinated better on the prepared statement delivered by Minister of State Desmond Tan.

For the Monday sitting of Parliament (Jan. 4), the officials knew three things:

  • This would be the first-ever livestreamed sitting of Parliament.
  • People's Action Party (PAP) MP Christopher de Souza's question was high up enough on the Order Paper that it would be answered in person, and not as a written reply.
  • The information given seemingly contradicted a previous statement given by a Minister.

Looking back, it was not surprising for some that the issue attracted as much attention as it did.

Vivian had to step in with a statement on Tuesday (Jan. 5).

But by then, the story had blown up internationally. How many people reading the international news on this matter on Monday would returned for Singapore stories of Vivian's explanation on Tuesday?

Did the officials think that Tan's answer would not attract this level of interest?

Granted, the government was likely to be preoccupied with the issues concerning the KL-Singapore high speed-rail, the live-streaming of parliament sitting or the clarifications on the approval of vaccines.

In future, the officials would have to think about how they can improve their coordination when it comes to communicating to the public, especially when there were a number of national issues happening at the same time.

Formalised "serious offences" subsequently

Late in the night of Jan. 8, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) sent out a press release with an update.

It laid out a concrete list of seven serious offences to which the police would specify the use of TraceTogether data, including terrorism, possession of dangerous weapons and murder.

Perhaps that would satisfy some concerns that the police would liberally use TraceTogether data for its work. It also does appear to address Singh's question in Parliament, in which he asked:

"Can the Minister further explain under what circumstances the police would be calling on that information, because police investigations would, by nature of our legislation, comprise a wide spectrum of offences.

So the expectation cannot be that this information can be used at first instance, whenever a police investigation commences."

Legislation on the matter is set to be passed in Parliament in February, given the PAP's majority in parliament.

Question of effectiveness, not apologies

The statement by SNDGO also said "we acknowledge our mistake", although stopping short of giving an actual apology clearly.

Vivian took personal responsibility, saying that he "acknowledged making a mistake when characterising the use of TraceTogether data last year".

But then again, I'm not really looking for an apology by the Minister on this matter.

It is never easy for politicians to say mea culpa. In this case, Vivian had already acknowledged that he made a mistake.

But one can't help but feel that all of this could have been prevented.

Yes, TraceTogether was developed quickly, during a time of urgent need.

Understandably, the priority of the government then is on the creation of the TraceTogether programme and may not have focused on the other implications that have surfaced this week.

But it has been a few months since the TraceTogether programme was rolled out.

Better coordination with Singapore's legal, security and technology arms of the government could have led to a more thorough explanation of the limits of TraceTogether's privacy policy.

And such public education or legislation could have been done in 2020, not 2021.

There might still have been some resistance, but it would have been easier to address the concerns at the beginning and avoid much of the controversy we face today.

In the meantime, I'm still sticking with my ugly-looking token. If I was ever near someone infected with Covid-19, I'd really want to know.

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Top image from Sulaiman Daud and CNA.