Vivian, Pritam, Shanmugam discuss police use of TraceTogether data, Covid-19 battle needs public trust

The use of TraceTogether data for criminal investigations will only be sought in very serious offences.

Sulaiman Daud | January 05, 2021, 07:58 PM

Following a Jan. 4 exchange in Parliament over the ability of the police to access TraceTogether data under the Criminal Procedure Code, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan issued a statement clarifying the issue.

Vivian, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, gave a statement in Parliament on Jan. 5. on the legal provisions governing the use of TraceTogether data.

Firstly, he said that Singapore has a current participation rate of 78 per cent for TraceTogether, and it is one of the key reasons for the country's good control of the Covid-19 situation, as contact tracing is essential to quickly identify anyone who may be exposed to an infected person.

Secondly, the government was conscious of the need to protect personal privacy. This led them to open source the code for public scrutiny, and ensure that the app and device does not collect GPS location or movement data.

Vivian reiterated that the app and token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user. He added:

"The app or token only keeps a temporary record of who you have come into close contact with for a prolonged basis. Neither the app nor the token tracks a user’s location. The data is then stored in an encrypted form locally on your device, that is either your mobile phone or your token. And that encrypted data is automatically purged after 25 days."

Vivian: Did not think of the CPC when speaking earlier

However and thirdly, Vivian made the point that TraceTogether data was not exempted from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

He said, "Frankly, and I think members know me well, I've always been frank. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke (earlier). The application of the CPC is not unique to TT data."

He pointed out that other kinds of data, such as phone or banking records, which are also governed by privacy laws, are also not exempt from the code.

Back in June 2020, Vivian stated in a reply to a Facebook comment that the data will only be used by authorised contact tracers to find people infected with Covid-19.

Police must be given tools to fight serious crime, but used with "utmost restraint"

Vivian said Singaporeans could understand why the CPC confers such powers, in the event of serious crimes such as murder or terrorism, the police may need to access TraceTogether data for their investigations.

When lives are at stake, it is not reasonable for us to say that certain classes of data are out of reach, he added.

However, this police power must be used judiciously and with the "utmost restraint."

He said, "We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities and the government."

Vivian also said that once the Covid-19 situation is over and there is no longer a need for contact tracing, the government will be happy to stand down the TraceTogether programme.

Pritam Singh: Everybody wants TraceTogether to succeed in view of public health

Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party, as the Leader of the Opposition, was asked by the Speaker to respond first to Vivian's statement.

He thanked Vivian for acknowledging that the Criminal Procedure Code "wasn't really in his contemplation", and said the remark was made in good faith.

However, he wanted to seek further clarification on the circumstances in which the police will make use of TraceTogether data. 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."

He added that everybody wants TraceTogether to succeed in view of the public health considerations, but said it was important to clarify this point in the public interest.

Shanmugam: Police will restrict use of TraceTogether data to "very serious offences"

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam rose to speak next.

He explained that under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the police are authorised to recover or seek any information within the possession of a person, as long as the seeking of such information is not excluded by some other written laws.

He gave an example of a murder case, and if the police choose not to seek TraceTogether information, one could imagine how the victim's family "and the rest of Singapore" may react.

However, given that TraceTogether is necessary for dealing with the pandemic, a matter of national importance, the police approach "has been and will be" that it will be restricted to "very serious offences", and while that requirement is not in the legislation, it will be carefully considered at the police's discretion.

People's Action Party (PAP) MP Christopher de Souza then asked if the data will be deleted at the end of the investigation.

Shanmugam replied, "If the data is of no particular use, yes it can be deleted. Otherwise it will have to be produced in court, and in trial or used for trial purposes, even if not produced in court."

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Top image from CNA video.