PM: Govt made mistake by not being upfront about TraceTogether's use in criminal probes

A visitor scanning a TraceTogether token before entering HarbourFront Centre last month. TraceTogether, which identifies people in close contact with a Covid-19 patient via Bluetooth, came under the spotlight earlier this year when it was revealed th
A visitor scanning a TraceTogether token before entering HarbourFront Centre last month. TraceTogether, which identifies people in close contact with a Covid-19 patient via Bluetooth, came under the spotlight earlier this year when it was revealed that its data could be used for criminal investigations, despite earlier assurances that it would be used solely for contact tracing. ST FILE PHOTO

The Government made a mistake by not being upfront about how TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations, but it has since passed a law to restrict its use to serious crimes, and will delete the information after the pandemic is over, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

And people have accepted this, he added in an interview with the BBC aired yesterday.

He noted that today, there are all kinds of apps that track one's whereabouts, and such data is resold - reflecting how privacy is not the same as it once was.

TraceTogether, which identifies people in close contact with a Covid-19 patient via Bluetooth, came under the spotlight earlier this year when it was revealed that its data could be used for criminal investigations, despite earlier assurances that it would be used solely for contact tracing.

The public backlash prompted the Government to enact legislation to restrict the use of contact tracing data, including that obtained under SafeEntry, to investigations of seven categories of serious crimes such as murder, terrorism, rape and armed robbery.

Said PM Lee of the episode: "I think we made a mistake. This app was designed for contact tracing and for pandemic purposes. But under the law, the police have powers to ask for information for criminal investigations and police investigations, and it covered this app."

"We should have said so upfront. We did not, and we came out and said so."

In the interview, PM Lee acknowledged that there was anxiety and a strong reaction from the disclosures on TraceTogether.

Reiterating assurances given by other ministers, he said that after the pandemic is over, the TraceTogether data that has been collected will be deleted. "I think people have accepted that, and we will be able to live with this," he added.

Other countries are also looking at surveillance or contact tracing programmes, and PM Lee was asked if Covid-19 is a gateway to a global situation where surveillance is more acceptable to people and useful for governments.

He replied that it was not just the pandemic, but the modern world.

Even without surveillance apps, there are all kinds of apps that track where people are and what they do, and PM Lee pointed out that the owners of these apps collect the information and often resell it. Compared with the days before the Internet, Wi-Fi and Google image search, privacy is not the same any more, anywhere in the world, he said.

This is something people are getting used to, and something societies have to find ways to deal with to protect legitimate concerns people have, that this is going to be used against them, he noted.

Said PM Lee: "There is a certain tension between individual rights and privacies, and our need to work together as a society and a community and to trust one another."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2021, with the headline 'PM: Govt made mistake by not being upfront about TraceTogether's use in criminal probes'. Subscribe