Parliament: TraceTogether programme to be stood down after pandemic

TraceTogether relies on a smartphone app or tokens to collect bluetooth proximity data to establish who people have come into physical contact with.
TraceTogether relies on a smartphone app or tokens to collect bluetooth proximity data to establish who people have come into physical contact with.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The TraceTogether programme will be stood down when the Covid-19 pandemic ends, and much of the data collected would be deleted, said Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Jan 5).

He added that the Ministry of Health may want to retain epidemiological data for research purposes, but that "it should be anonymised, it should not be personalised, it should not be individualised".

He gave this assurance as he told Parliament that the purpose of the TraceTogether programme is for contact tracing, so that any chains of transmission of Covid-19 can be quickly broken.

The issue of how the data can be used came up for discussion in the House on Tuesday, after a reply to a parliamentary question the day before sparked a furore.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan had said in a response to a question from Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) that under the Criminal Procedure Code, the police have the power to obtain data for criminal investigations, and TraceTogether data is not exempt.

Some had asked if this was inconsistent with what Dr Balakrishnan had said before, that the programme was to be used for contact tracing only.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, acknowledged that he had misspoken.

"After I realised that the CPC applied to this, I did have sleepless nights wondering: Should I try to persuade my colleagues to change the law?" he added.

"But having thought about it, discussed, consulted people both within and outside this House, I've come to the conclusion that right now we are doing well. We are able to keep Singapore safe, we are able to deal with the current crisis," he said.

"And so long as this Government is able to maintain our reputation for openness, transparency, reliability, I think we are still on the right track."

Several MPs, such as Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), Mr de Souza, and Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) had asked on Tuesday how the police would handle the data used for criminal investigations.

To this, Dr Balakrishnan and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the police would only obtain the data for investigations into serious offences, such as murder or terrorism.

Separately, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman said the powers under the Criminal Procedure Code will have to be exercised if the data cannot be obtained voluntarily, such as when the data belongs to a suspect in a case.

The spokesman noted that it is common for witnesses and victims to volunteer data to the police.

TraceTogether, developed for contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic, relies on a smartphone app or tokens to collect bluetooth proximity data to establish who people have come into physical contact with.

Dr Balakrishnan stressed that this data is kept on people's phones or TraceTogether tokens and is automatically purged after 25 days if not used for contact tracing purposes.

He also noted that MPs and others had suggested on numerous occasions before that TraceTogether should be made compulsory, since Covid-19 presents a clear and present threat.

But he had pushed as much as possible to make it voluntary, he added, because he believed that the programme could only achieve success if people fully understood its purpose and voluntarily cooperate.

Describing TraceTogether as "perhaps the world's most successful contact tracing programme", Dr Balakrishnan credited it to people's willingness to participate in it, and thanked them for their trust and understanding and for taking collective responsibility.

He added that this is why the Government had wanted to be completely above board and transparent in addressing the use of TraceTogether data in Parliament.

Noting that each society has had to find a balance between protecting public health during the pandemic, on one hand, and personal privacy on the other, he said: "I believe it is possible to find that optimal point - by being transparent, by being open, by being diligent, disciplined and doing our best all the time collectively."

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