S'pore govt to pass law to ensure TraceTogether data can be used only for serious crimes

The TraceTogether app and tokens exchange Bluetooth signals in an encrypted and randomised form with nearby users.
The TraceTogether app and tokens exchange Bluetooth signals in an encrypted and randomised form with nearby users.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - A law will be passed to formalise assurances made earlier that data from the Covid-19 TraceTogether contact tracing programme, if needed for criminal investigations, can be used to look into only serious offences including murder, terrorism and rape.

The legislation will be introduced in the next sitting of Parliament next month on a Certificate of Urgency, said the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) yesterday. This means that the proposed law is urgent enough to be put through all three readings in one parliamentary sitting, instead of separate sessions.

SNDGO said the legislation will specify that personal data collected through digital contact tracing solutions, which comprise the TraceTogether and SafeEntry programmes, can be used only for contact tracing.

However, there is an exception – when there is a “clear and pressing” need to use that data for criminal investigations into seven categories of serious offences.

“It is not in the public interest to completely deny the police access to such data, when the safety of the public or the proper conduct of justice is at stake,” the statement said.

“If a serious criminal offence has been committed, the police must be able to use this data to bring the perpetrators to justice, seek redress for the victims and protect society at large.”

SNDGO also said: “We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).”

Earlier last year, the Government had said that TraceTogether data would be used only for contact tracing in Singapore’s fight against the pandemic.

More than 4.2 million people, or about 78 per cent of residents here, have downloaded the TraceTogether app or collected the tokens.

The app and tokens exchange Bluetooth signals in an encrypted and randomised form with nearby users to quickly track people exposed to confirmed Covid-19 cases. The data, when unencrypted, is linked to a person’s phone number and other identification details.

The controversy flared up on Monday when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told Parliament that TraceTogether data could be accessed for criminal investigations under the CPC.

This prompted public criticism over whether this was an about-turn in the use of data collected.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation drive, and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament that the data collected will be used with utmost restraint.

Even though the police have the powers to access the data for criminal investigations, they will do so only for very serious offences, such as murder, the two ministers said.

Meanwhile, there were calls by some online for others to stop using or return their TraceTogether app or tokens, citing concerns that the Government had backtracked on earlier assurances.

SNDGO’s statement on Friday said: “We value the trust that the public has placed in the TraceTogether programme, and feedback from members of the public.”

It added that Dr Balakrishnan and Mr Shanmugam held a public consultation yesterday with members of the media, the legal fraternity, technology experts and academics to hear their views.

"The views gathered will inform the debate on the upcoming legislation," the office said.

Lawyer Stefanie Yuen Thio told The Straits Times that the Government was open about admitting that its original information was not completely accurate, and added: “I hope that we can, as a nation, now go back to focusing on the pressing issue of fighting the pandemic.”

Observers such as Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University told The Straits Times that the move to define clearly in the law the circumstances with which police can use TraceTogether data should assuage concerns over how much access authorities have to them.

"I use assuage because I still believe there are people who will take the view that lets just keep it to pure contact tracing, because (if you can use it to fight crime) it means this technology has capability to do other things and there could be this lingering suspicion," said the former Nominated MP.

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

"The furore has been an unnecessary distraction and hopefully this move will enable the Government to regain the trust and confidence of Singaporeans, which they have acknowledged has been essential in our keeping Covid-19 under control here."

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 to articulate what kind of crimes would warrant their use.

"With this legislation, it's a very definitive move to try to dispel any doubt," said Ms Tin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information.

"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."

Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam said the Workers' Party will study the Bill when it is tabled in Parliament and formulate its response accordingly.

The proposed law to ensure the use of contact tracing data is limited to serious crimes will expressly cover the following:

1. Offences involving the use or possession of corrosive substances, as well as offensive or dangerous weapons. This includes possessing firearms and armed robberies involving firearms.

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

3. Crimes against people where the victim is seriously hurt or killed. This includes murder, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and voluntarily causing grievous hurt in which the victim’s injury is life-threatening

4. Drug trafficking offences in which the penalty is death

5. Escape from legal custody when there is reason to believe that the person will cause imminent harm to others

6. Kidnapping

7. Serious sexual offences such as rape and sexual assault by penetration

Under the proposed law, personal data collected for contact tracing can be used for police investigations or court proceedings for such serious crimes.

The data cannot be used in the investigations, inquiries or court proceedings of any other offence besides these seven categories of serious crimes, said SNDGO.