PM Lee on how TraceTogether data was initially communicated: 'I think we made a mistake'

"We should have said so upfront".

Syahindah Ishak | March 14, 2021, 03:15 PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with the BBC on Mar. 2 that the Singapore government "should have said so upfront" to the public on how TraceTogether data was used and explained that the data was covered by the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

PM Lee was addressing a question by the BBC journalist in the Talking Business Asia program, who noted that "there was a sense (among Singaporeans) that perhaps not the whole truth came out" on how the government could use the TraceTogether data for other purposes.

PM Lee replied:

"I think we made a mistake. This app was designed for contact tracing and for pandemic purposes. But under the law, the police have powers to ask for information for criminal investigations and police investigations, and it covered this app.

We should have said so upfront. We did not, and we came out and said so."

It was PM Lee's first public remarks on the TraceTogether data issue.

Under the CPC, the police are allowed to ask for information that can aid in criminal investigations.

This includes information that can be retrieved from the TraceTogether app or token.

However, this was not clearly explained when the Singapore government first encouraged the public to use the TraceTogether app or token.

"Quite a strong reaction" to TraceTogether data issue

PM Lee added that the government had to subsequently "come out and explain this" when questions were raised in parliament.

PM Lee also noted that there was "quite a strong" reaction to the revelation.

The news caused anxiety amongst Singaporeans, PM Lee noted.

PM Lee explained that once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, the government will delete the TraceTogether information.

"I think people have accepted that, and we will be able to live with this," he added.

Questions were raised in parliament

In December 2020, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Christopher de Souza filed a parliamentary question on TraceTogether data.

He asked if the data will be used for criminal investigations and if so, what legal provisions or safeguards are available.

MP for Bukit Batok SMC Murali Pillai had also asked what steps the government had taken to ensure that personal data of persons collated through TraceTogether will be protected and not used for any other purpose.

On June 4, 2020, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a written response to Murali's question that TraceTogether data would only be used for contact tracing.

Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan also said in parliament on June 5, 2020 that the TraceTogether data would only be used for contract tracing.

Desmond Tan revealed that TraceTogether data can be accessed for investigations

But on Jan. 4, 2021, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told de Souza in parliament that the Singapore police has the power to obtain any data for criminal investigations under the CPC.

That was the first time the public became aware that the TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations.

A few days later, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office released a statement acknowledging its error in not stating that TraceTogether data was applicable to the CPC, and that access to such data would be limited to seven categories of serious offences.

On Feb. 2, Vivian said he took full responsibility for the "consternation" and "anxiety" caused by the revelation that TraceTogether data can be used for police investigations.

Vivian said this in Parliament, while giving his speech during the second reading of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill.

The new legislation will now restrict the use of personal contact tracing data in police investigations to serious offences, and will also spell out the penalties for unauthorised usage.

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Top image courtesy of Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).