Workers' Party supports Bill on use of TraceTogether data, but asks how critical info is for criminal probe

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SINGAPORE - The Workers' Party (WP) is prepared to support a proposed law that would restrict the use of personal contact tracing data by the police to investigations into the most serious crimes, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

Joining the debate on the Bill on Tuesday (Feb 2), Mr Singh said the move to confine the use of TraceTogether data to seven types of serious crimes constitute a "significant reduction" of the wide ambit of Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which empowers the police to obtain any data under Singapore's jurisdiction for criminal investigations.

"In other words, a Singaporean's right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it," he said.

In setting out his party's position on the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, the WP chief also posed a range of questions to Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan, including how critical TraceTogether data was for criminal investigations, given the number of other tools at the police's disposal.

The WP's view is that Singapore's top priority should be to tackle the public health and economic effects of the pandemic, he said.

Anything that compromises this priority has to give way unless there are overwhelming good reasons, he added, saying it is apparent that the Government's handling of the matter "has eroded trust from some members of the public".

Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) also called on the Government to initiate a broader national conversation on privacy concerns, taking in lessons learnt from this episode.

He said his own preference was for TraceTogether data to be used only for contact tracing purposes, in line with "the Government's original emphatic assurances". Explaining this, he noted the concerns some Singaporeans still have about privacy, and discomfort over sharing cellphone data.

"I am of the view that such an approach would also engender confidence given that a public conversation on privacy has hitherto not been ventilated in a significant way in Singapore," he said.

Mr Singh noted the "disquiet, unhappiness, and even cynicism in some quarters" following the Government's revelation in January that TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations.

It comes down to a question of trust, the perceived lack of empathy over the public's privacy concerns, and discomfort over sharing mobile phone data with the authorities without sufficient assurances, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, had given the assurance last June that TraceTogether would be used only for contact tracing.

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When the minister admitted in Parliament that it did not occur to him that TraceTogether was subject to the Criminal Procedure Code, there were Singaporeans who felt this was "not fathomable" for a largely efficient government machinery that has consistently approached Covid-19 as a whole-of-Government endeavour, Mr Singh said.

He added that there were even some Singaporeans who suspect the Government had suppressed information surrounding the use of TraceTogether data for criminal investigations until the target of 70 per cent of the population has been reached.

Mr Singh then asked Dr Balakrishnan for the exact date when he knew the Criminal Procedure Code would apply to TraceTogether.

He also wanted to know if Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had filed a parliamentary question on the matter before or after the minister became aware of the code applying to contact tracing data.

"These questions are important for the House to understand at what point the Government determined that its original representations on the use of TraceTogether were misleading, and whether it could have corrected the position and updated the public on its own initiative," said Mr Singh.

Calling the national fight against Covid-19 a "wartime scenario", he asked whether the change in the Government's position could compromise this fight and jeopardise contact tracing.

While TraceTogether data is critical for contact tracing, he questioned if it would also be vital in solving these seven categories of crimes such as terrorism-related offences, kidnapping, murder and serious sexual offences such as rape.

As it is, the police already have an abundance of investigative tools, such as CCTVs, examining mobile phones and laptops, as well as old-fashioned forensic analysis of crime scenes, he said.

"There is a legitimate view that these tools should be more than sufficient in detecting crime and securing convictions," he added.

He also asked about the use of TraceTogether data for actual cases: For the one known case where TraceTogether was used, was that case solved and how critical was TraceTogether data in doing so; and how many other times has TraceTogether been used for the seven categories of serious crimes so far.

Mr Singh said some people have shared that they would use the TraceTogether app to gain entry to a place, but turn off their Bluetooth immediately afterwards.

This shows that a high level of downloads of the app does not necessarily translate to a high degree of usage, he noted.

"It is therefore open to question whether the efficacy of TraceTogether for contact tracing could be compromised because of the Government's belated explanation on the use of TraceTogether data for investigative purposes."

Some people have shared that they would use the TraceTogether app to gain entry to a place, but turn off their Bluetooth immediately afterwards. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Mr Singh then gave several suggestions on how the Government could counter scepticism and replace it with trust and cooperation.

It should be forthcoming, without prompting, in informing the public about what data it collects, as well as how it ensures the robustness and integrity of its processes, he said.

The Government should also ensure that the laws reassure Singapore citizens and residents that investigatory powers and data collection are used for legitimate purposes and are subject to rigorous checks that prevent abuses of personal data.

He called for a broad review of the state's powers to collect data for the purpose of investigations.

To check against abuse, a neutral commissioner or ombudsman could be appointed to monitor the use of such powers by the Government, he suggested.

He acknowledged the difficulty in holding discussions about data privacy, but warned that not having such conversations, and holding the "erroneous assumption that continuing down tried and tested routes will suffice", could lead to worse outcomes like a disunited populace.

"We will all lose if that happens," he said. "Covid-19 is a crisis like no other, but insofar as finding a better balance between policing and privacy, the lessons that have been taught by this TraceTogether episode inform us they are lessons the Government would be wise not to dismiss."

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