Bill limiting police use of TraceTogether data to serious crimes passed

The safeguards under the Bill include deleting TraceTogether and SafeEntry data when the pandemic is over.
The safeguards under the Bill include deleting TraceTogether and SafeEntry data when the pandemic is over.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A Bill restricting the use of personal contact tracing data in criminal investigations to only serious crimes, such as murder and terrorism, was passed in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 2), with assurances of safeguards to protect people's data.

This comes after a public outcry when it was revealed last month that the police could use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations as well as for contact tracing.

The safeguards in place include deleting TraceTogether and SafeEntry data for Covid-19 contact tracing from government servers when the pandemic is over, and encrypting any extracted data used for investigations by the police and restricting its use to only seven categories of serious crimes.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh also rose in support of the proposed law, urging Singaporeans to download the TraceTogether app or use the token because the safety of the community is at stake.

Speaking at the start of a debate on the Bill on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan assured Parliament that the Government's intention in introducing it urgently was to remove any doubt among Singaporeans and assure them that the data will be properly safeguarded and used appropriately.

This is so that "we may continue to focus our attention towards battling... the Covid-19 global pandemic", said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

"This is crucial because the virus is a clear, present and... growing threat. And it will remain so for some time. We cannot afford to be distracted from our fight against Covid-19," he said.

The Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill was tabled in Parliament on Monday by Dr Balakrishnan on behalf of Law Minister K. Shanmugam on a Certificate of Urgency. This means the proposed law was put through all three readings in one parliamentary sitting, instead of separate sessions.

Besides TraceTogether and SafeEntry data, the Bill covers the private sector's BluePass programme, which contributes data to TraceTogether.

Dr Balakrishnan added that limiting the use of contact tracing data with the proposed law is "a result of a delicate balance between the right to public health, the right to public security, and respecting the sensitivity of personal data during this extraordinary time".

Safeguards to protect people's contact tracing data include deleting the data in the TraceTogether app or token, as well as SafeEntry servers, after 25 days, so the police cannot request the data after it has been purged, he said.

Also, no other written law can override the protections offered by the Bill, which Dr Balakrishnan said was an added assurance that public agencies may not use contact tracing data for anything else.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan on Tuesday also outlined safeguards on the police's access to the data, such as requiring officers who are inspectors or higher to request for it.

Eighteen MPs who debated on the Bill also raised many issues. These included concerns that the Bill would set a precedent in restricting the authorities from having access to information for future investigations.

Some called for the proposed law to expand on the list of crimes that contact tracing data could be used for, while others said that the matter highlighted an issue of trust that had been broken with the people, since assurances were given last year that the data would be used only for contact tracing.

Dr Balakrishnan clarified that SafeEntry data has been used by the police for investigations into offences in a number of instances before, without giving details.

He also said that the new legislation does not set a precedent, adding that it is sui generis - or unique - and applies only to serious crimes.

"It is not in the public interest to deny the police access to data necessary to ensure public safety, and the proper conduct of justice," he added.