Utmost restraint in use of TraceTogether data, say ministers

Police will access info to help investigate only very serious crimes, Parliament told

The design and code of TraceTogether collects only Bluetooth proximity data as opposed to location data.
The design and code of TraceTogether collects only Bluetooth proximity data as opposed to location data.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The data collected by TraceTogether will be used with utmost restraint, two ministers said yesterday, as they underscored the importance of maintaining trust in the contact tracing system to curb the spread of Covid-19.

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, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament.

Also, the police can obtain the data only directly from the person's phone or the TraceTogether token, Dr Balakrishnan said.

Their remarks come after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan affirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that TraceTogether data is not precluded from provisions under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that allow the police to access data needed in criminal investigations.

This had sparked criticism, with some pointing to remarks made in June by Dr Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation drive, that TraceTogether data would be used "purely for contact tracing, period". "Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC, when I spoke earlier," he admitted yesterday.

He added that he was mindful of the trust reposed in the Government, adding that the cooperation of Singaporeans and their willingness to use TraceTogether have been key to Singapore's fight against Covid-19.

"The reason I asked Speaker's permission to make this clarification is precisely because of this. If there's disquiet, if there's uncertainty, we must answer it, and I must answer it openly, transparently," he said.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said it was important to clarify the issue, noting it had caused consternation. He and Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) also said TraceTogether should be widely adopted in the interest of public health.

Citing that 78 per cent of people here have chosen to download the TraceTogether app or collect the token, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government was conscious of the need to protect the personal privacy of these users, and had built it into the design of the program.

He assured Singaporeans that the app collects only Bluetooth proximity data and not GPS location data, and said: "The TraceTogether app and the token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user."

But TraceTogether data is not exempt from the provisions under Section 20 of the CPC, said Dr Balakrishnan, noting that it would not be reasonable to say that certain classes of data should be "out of reach of the police", especially if they could potentially give leads on, say, terrorism activities and save lives. He disclosed that TraceTogether data had been used in a murder case.

If data is not used in such instances, it would not sit well with Singaporeans at large, added Mr Shanmugam. He also said that the police would delete the data if it was no longer needed for use in court or for trial purposes.

Dr Balakrishnan also said that when the pandemic is over, the TraceTogether programme would be stood down, and much of the data would be deleted.

He said the Ministry of Health may retain epidemiological data, but that it should be stripped of identifying details.

He added: "We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities, and the Government of Singapore...

"I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2021, with the headline 'Utmost restraint in use of TraceTogether data, say ministers'. Subscribe