Law will allay public concerns on data use, say observers

Defining cases in which data can be used by police will assuage privacy concerns, they say

Residents collecting their TraceTogether tokens at a community centre last month. Some observers feel that limiting the use of the data would help balance the need to fight Covid-19 with the need to fight serious crime. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Residents collecting their TraceTogether tokens at a community centre last month. Some observers feel that limiting the use of the data would help balance the need to fight Covid-19 with the need to fight serious crime. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Observers and MPs yesterday welcomed the news that the law would be amended to limit the use of TraceTogether data in criminal investigations to seven types of serious offences such as murder, kidnapping and serious sexual crimes.

They said the move would help to address concerns over privacy that had arisen since Monday, when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told Parliament that data collected by the contact tracing system to combat Covid-19 can be used by the police under the Criminal Procedure Code.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University said the move to define clearly in the law the circumstances under which police can use TraceTogether data should assuage concerns over how much access the authorities have to such data.

The former Nominated MP said there will still be people who take the view that TraceTogether data should be used purely for contact tracing, and there could be lingering suspicion even with the proposed restrictions to limit its use.

More importantly, the latest development should help refocus public attention and energy towards fighting Covid-19, he added.

Yesterday's announcement came soon after Mr Tan's reply to a parliamentary question from Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza on Monday sparked public criticism, prompting Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation effort, and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam to clarify the Government's position a day later.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office said last night that legislation will be passed next month to specify that personal data collected through the TraceTogether and SafeEntry programmes can be used only for contact tracing, except where the police have to access it to investigate seven categories of serious offences.

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling said that since Tuesday's exchange in Parliament, a small number of her residents had expressed their concerns about the use of TraceTogether data and the need for safeguards, with one suggesting that the crimes for which police can obtain such data should be spelt out.

The legislation is a definitive move to dispel any doubt, she said.

"Once the details are out, it should be very clear what the process is going to be like, what are the specific categories of crimes that will allow solicitation of this data, so it will leave nothing to the imagination," she added.

Following the remarks in Parliament, several members of the public had accused the Government of not being upfront, saying that the impression given when TraceTogether was introduced last year was that data collected would be used only for contact tracing.

  • Amendment to restrict use of TraceTogether data

  • Changes to the law will be introduced at the next sitting of Parliament next month to restrict the use of personal data collected through Covid-19 digital contact-tracing solutions.

    The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office, said yesterday that the legislation will spell out that data collected through TraceTogether and SafeEntry cannot be used in police investigations, inquiries or court proceedings on any offence besides these seven categories:

    • Offences involving the use or possession of corrosive substances, offensive or dangerous weapons, such as possession of firearms and armed robbery with the use of firearms

    • Terrorism-related offences under the Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act, Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act, and Terrorism (Suppression of Misuse of Radioactive Material) Act

    • Crimes against people where the victim is seriously hurt or killed, such as murder, culpable homicide not amounting to murder and voluntarily causing grievous hurt, where the victim's injury is of a life-threatening nature

    • Drug trafficking offences that attract the death penalty

    • Escape from legal custody where there is reasonable belief that the subject will cause imminent harm to others

    • Kidnapping

    • Serious sexual offences, such as rape and sexual assault by penetration.

On Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged in Parliament he had misspoken when he said last year that the data would be used only for contact tracing, and added that the Criminal Procedure Code was not on his mind when he spoke then.

To this, Mr de Souza said yesterday: "I listened to every word of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's reply on Tuesday and I believe him - he had not considered the CPC when he spoke of the ambit of TraceTogether in June 2020."

He also said of the proposed curbs to restrict the use of data in police investigations to seven serious crimes: "It speaks of transparency and has the added value of restricting the use of data. It is a positive, transparent and timely move."

Meanwhile, Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam, who had expressed concern that not exempting TraceTogether data under the Criminal Procedure Code would discourage use of the contact tracing system, said: "We will study the Bill when it is tabled in Parliament and formulate our response accordingly."

Some observers had also felt that limiting the use of the data would help balance the need to fight Covid-19 with the need to fight serious crime.

Lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio said the serious nature of the crimes listed makes clear that the police will rely on TraceTogether data only in cases of utmost necessity.

"It is also important to bear in mind that every member of the public has a very strong interest to ensure that criminals who commit such serious offences are brought to justice," she added.

"We should also bear in mind that just as TraceTogether data can incriminate, it can also prove innocence, such as when a token user was not in the vicinity of the victim during the commission of a crime."

Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan said TraceTogether data could be useful for investigations in crimes that are not premeditated, such as a spontaneous fight in a club that ends in someone being killed.

He added: "All Singaporeans don't want a person guilty of serious crimes to get away scot-free."

Meanwhile, some people were still uneasy over how contact tracing data would be used, despite yesterday's statement.

Mr Aloysius Low, 39, founder of technology review site Can Buy or Not, who has been urging people to delete or stop using the TraceTogether app since Monday, said that it is a good thing the Government is legislating the use of the data.

But he is worried there is still not enough assurance that the law will not be amended in the future to expand the use of the data.

Mr Sudheesan said Singapore had leveraged technology well for contact tracing, and he found it disappointing that people have started deleting the TraceTogether app.

"There will be some residual resentment," he noted. "And people may need (some time) to purge themselves of this anger."

• Additional reporting by Kenny Chee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2021, with the headline 'Law will allay public concerns on data use, say observers'. Subscribe