'Hands and feet tied': Some PAP MPs worry new TraceTogether law could restrict police powers

Cases like sexual assault would not qualify as a serious offence which can be investigated using data from TraceTogether. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - If a child is stalked and molested by a paedophile, and data collected by the TraceTogether programme is the only clue available, the police would not be able to use this information to arrest the suspect.

This is because such a hypothetical case, presented by Mr Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC), would not qualify as a serious offence which can be investigated using contact tracing data from TraceTogether, under changes to the law approved by Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 1).

The update to the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Act lists seven categories of crimes of a significant severity or that pose an immediate threat to life or public safety - such as the use of firearms and dangerous weapons, terrorism, murder, drug offences that attract the death penalty, kidnapping and rape.

During the debate, Mr Wee and several other MPs from the ruling People's Action Party spoke out against what they saw as the restrictive nature of the changes and their potential to hinder police work.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Wee said that he was not in favour of such "special treatment" for TraceTogether data.

"Even if a crime is not under the seven categories of serious crimes, the use of the data should be authorised for police investigations or court proceedings," he said, adding that not doing so would leave the authorities with "hands and feet tied".

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) echoed his point, saying that the Bill placed limits on the powers of the police to obtain information for other crimes that also warranted attention.

Citing sexual assault, violence not amounting to grievous bodily harm and non-capital drug offences as examples, he said: "These acts are not serious under the current legislation, but… if you were a victim, if one of your family members was a victim, would you want police to use all available data? I am pretty sure the answer is yes.

"If you are wrongly accused, would you want the police to use this data to show you were somewhere else at the time it happened? Probably yes. But that can't be done now."

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) said it was counterintuitive to restrict police access to the data, describing it as "akin to walking past a bloody knife and ignoring it". "While it may be rare that TraceTogether data could produce conclusive evidence, sometimes you just need one small jigsaw piece to complete the puzzle.

"While some may scoff at the idea of someone bringing their TraceTogether token along to commit crimes, not all crimes are planned," he added.

Mr Wee said: "We should not become like some Western, developed nations which cannot solve certain crimes due to privacy protection… We are an Asian society where the interests of the community are more important than the interests of the individual."

Mr Yam noted that public unhappiness was not so much over police access but the "abrupt change in terms" from an initial promise that personal data would be used solely for contact tracing purposes.

He said: "People rightfully expect better from their Government. What the Government must do now is to rectify this mistake, apologise for this miscommunication, acknowledge the concerns and reasons for the discontentment, and reassure the public on what will be done to prevent similar lapses with future policies."

Most of the PAP MPs who spoke acknowledged the balance that the proposed changes struck between preserving privacy and confidence in the contact tracing systems and ensuring the police's ability to solve major crimes would not be hindered, especially as the pandemic continues to rage.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) said: "The Bill is a compromise. It is a balance of public health and keeping everyone in Singapore safe and secure while respecting personal privacy."

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