Safeguards in place to ensure contact tracing data used only when necessary: Desmond Tan

As an additional safeguard, all data extracted for such purposes would be encrypted and kept in strict confidence. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Only senior police officers can request the use of data from Singapore's national contact tracing programme to investigate serious crimes, and even then, each request has to be approved by the police's Criminal Investigation Department.

These are among the multiple safeguards put in place to ensure that data collected by the TraceTogether, SafeEntry and Bluepass programmes are used in police investigations only when absolutely necessary, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 2).

He was responding to MPs like Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), who had asked for assurances from the Government that the data would be treated with utmost care, given privacy concerns.

Speaking during the debate on the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill to restrict the police's powers over such data, Mr Tan stressed that the information would be used only in criminal investigations involving seven categories of serious crimes.

They include offences 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.

The proposed law's introduction follows an outcry after Mr Tan told the House on Jan 4 that under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the police can obtain any data under Singapore's jurisdiction for criminal investigations, including TraceTogether data.

It appeared to contradict statements the Government had made last year that such data would be used solely for contact tracing to tackle the pandemic.

Addressing MPs questions on Tuesday on the safeguards, Mr Tan said that only senior officers with the rank of at least inspector can request the use of the data.

He added that this is the same standard the police has to meet to request bank data from financial institutions, even though the CPC specifies that such orders can be made by officers starting from the lower rank of sergeant.

He also said that the use of any contact tracing data for police probes will have to be approved by the police's Criminal Investigation Department.

As an additional safeguard, all data extracted for such purposes would be encrypted and kept in strict confidence, with only authorised officers allowed access, he pledged, adding that such access will be tracked and logged.

If the data is eventually used in court, that will be another avenue to ascertain that the offence being investigated falls within the seven specified categories, he said.

During the debate, various MPs had also asked if the police's use of contact tracing data would be expanded to more categories of offences.

Some cited outrage of modesty and other crimes committed against vulnerable persons, arguing that the data would be particularly useful in such situations.

While Mr Tan agreed that the data would be useful in helping to solve such crimes, he said the Government has to make a judgment call between public health and public safety.

He noted that such offences were of grave concern and would be investigated thoroughly, but that they rank below the seven specified categories in seriousness.

"The police cannot use contact tracing data that falls outside of the seven categories. Should a police officer make such a request, SNDGO (Smart Nation and Digital Government Office) and MOH (Ministry of Health) would not be permitted to provide the data," he said.

He later added: "This was a very tough balancing act for the Ministry of Home Affairs."

"Nonetheless, I would like to assure members that the police will continue to investigate all offences that are not in these seven categories of serious offences."

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had also asked why the Bill had not spelt out the exact list of offences covered and instead only listed the seven categories.

Noting that this has been the approach taken in other laws, such as the Extradition Act, Mr Tan said that the seven categories relate to offences that will be obvious prima facie.

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