Vivian Balakrishnan says he 'deeply regrets' mistake on TraceTogether data

SINGAPORE - Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Feb 2) said he took "full responsibility" for the Government's error in not stating that contact tracing data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code for criminal investigations.

"I deeply regret the consternation, the anxiety that was caused by my mistake," he told Parliament during the debate on a Bill to limit the use of TraceTogether data for investigations into seven types of serious crimes.

"For people who are angry or disappointed at my mistake, you're entitled to do that, but don't deprive yourself and your loved ones of the protection from this system," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also in charge of Singapore's Smart Nation drive, had assured the public in June last year that TraceTogether data would be used only for contact tracing.

There was a public backlash after the Government revealed in Parliament early last month that the police could, via the Criminal Procedure Code, access the data for investigations.

It prompted the Government to introduce new legislation in Parliament on Monday under a Certificate of Urgency to restrict the use of contact tracing data.

The minister made the point that in instances where things go wrong, it was important to be completely transparent, inform people about it and then try to fix the issue, instead of doubling down on the mistake.

He also set out the timeline of when he first realised TraceTogether data could be used for criminal investigations, and responded to a question from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on why there was a delay from when he found out to when the matter was publicised in January.

It was at the end of October last year that Dr Balakrishnan said he knew, after a member of the public asked him about it.

He then spent November checking the Criminal Procedure Code and discussed with senior Cabinet ministers on whether it was possible to carve out TraceTogether data from the Code.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) filed a parliamentary question on the matter in early December, and Dr Balakrishnan said he thought it was right to answer it in Parliament in January.

"I'm sharing this with you so that you understand that there is nothing to hide," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan said that if he could rewind time, he would not have made the mistake last June regarding TraceTogether data and would have looked for an earlier occasion to explain it.

"But the key point... is that there was never any doubt in my mind that we would clarify, that we would explain and we would be held accountable and that I would take responsibility," he said.

He said that as a doctor and a techno-optimist, the potential use of the data by the police did not cross his mind or the mind of his engineers at all.

"What we had in mind was digital contact tracing. We were not at all trying to create a surveillance tool. I say this so that you understand my state of mind when I said what I said in June."

The effectiveness of TraceTogether depends heavily on the rate of users participating in it, he noted.

The Foreign Minister also said that based on what he has seen globally, one of the reasons "why we are better off is that we have not politicised our response to Covid-19".

Extending his gratitude to the Workers' Party, which supported the Bill, he said unlike other countries where wearing a mask or not wearing a mask is a badge of political identity, "we have avoided that kind of political dichotomies".