WP prefers police not to use contact tracing data, but supports Bill's restrictions to protect privacy: Pritam Singh

WP prefers police not to use contact tracing data, but supports Bill's restrictions to protect privacy: Pritam Singh

Pritam Singh in Parliament Sep 2
Leader of the Opposition MP Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) speaking in Parliament on Sep 2, 2020.

SINGAPORE: The Workers' Party (WP) prefers that contact tracing data is not used in police investigations at all, but is prepared to support a Bill that restricts this use to investigations for serious offences, Leader of the Opposition MP Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) said on Tuesday (Feb 2).

Following a five-hour debate, Parliament on Tuesday passed a law that spells out these offences, including those related to terrorism, drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping and serious sexual offences such as rape.

READ: Bill restricting use of TraceTogether data for serious crimes passed by Parliament

This comes after Parliament heard in January that police can use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, sparking privacy concerns as the Government had earlier said this data would be strictly used for contact tracing.

The restrictions in the Bill would achieve a "delicate balance" between public health, public safety in terms of tackling serious crimes, as well as sensitivity to data privacy, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said before the law was passed.

READ: Bill restricting police use of TraceTogether data introduced in Parliament, with tougher penalties for misuse

WP chief Mr Singh said he would have preferred that contact tracing data be fully exempted from being used in police probes.

"This is because of some Singaporeans’ residual concerns over privacy and the established discomfort about sharing cellphone data," he explained.

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

Despite that, Mr Singh said the WP would support the Bill as the restrictions comprise a "significant reduction" in what is stated in Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which says the police can order anyone to produce any data for a criminal investigation.

"In other words, Singaporeans’ right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it," he said.

"The WP is of the view that Singapore’s number one priority should be to tackle the pandemic’s public health and economic effects. Anything that compromises this priority has to give way unless there are overwhelming good reasons," he added.

PUBLIC TRUST IN GOVERNMENT

Mr Singh said it is apparent that the Government’s handling of this matter has "eroded trust" from some members of the public, as he questioned when Dr Balakrishnan realised that Section 20 of the CPC applied to TraceTogether data as well.

The minister said in June last year that TraceTogether data would only be used for contact tracing.

"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," Mr Singh said.

Dr Balakrishnan replied that his statement in June last year could be attributed to the design of the TraceTogether app, which prioritised privacy and was not a "surveillance tool".

"But what I said in June was wrong, because, in a sense, my own enthusiasm for the technology blindsided me," he said, adding that he did not read Section 20 of the CPC and took "full responsibility" for the error.

READ: TraceTogether: PAP MPs say proposed legislation addresses concerns; PSP suggests data should only be used for contact tracing

Dr Balakrishnan said he started to realise what he said was wrong near the end of October, when he was asked by a member of the public if the CPC would not apply to TraceTogether data "even for a murder case".

"When I received that query, I asked my staff, 'Please go and double check'," he said.

"I'm not a lawyer, but please go and double check what the legal provisions are. At that point, I was informed that the CPC applied, and that in fact the police had requested TraceTogether data on one previous occasion."

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said on Tuesday that this occasion was for a murder that occurred in May last year. However, police did not obtain any "useful" data as the suspect had not installed the TraceTogether app in his phone, Mr Tan said.

Then in November amid "sleepless nights", Dr Balakrishnan said he engaged in several rounds of discussion with senior Cabinet colleagues on whether and how contact tracing data should be carved out from being used under the CPC.

"You will know that my own strongly held view at that point in time, was that even if the CPC applied, and even if we were going to make data available, we should exercise this with utmost restraint," he said.

"I was also aware that I had first made this assurance, in this Chamber, I think it was in June ... and I told my staff, regardless of the outcome of this internal review, we will come back here (to Parliament) and we will clarify," he added.

READ: Legislation to be introduced setting out serious offences for which TraceTogether data can be used for police probe

Dr Balakrishnan said that MP Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) filed a Parliamentary question in December regarding the use of TraceTogether data under the CPC.

This question was answered at the next sitting in January, leading to the initial spate of privacy concerns.

"I'm sharing this with you so that you understand that there is nothing to hide. The CPC is written law," Dr Balakrishnan said. "But I should have been aware, and I should have made it clear right from the onset."

CAN YOU REQUEST FOR YOUR OWN TRACETOGETHER DATA?

MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) expressed concern that the Bill had described the serious offences in "less precise terms", possibly leading to "some ambiguity and uncertainty in application".

In response, Mr Tan said the approach of describing the categories of offences, rather than the specific offences, has been used in other laws, including the Extradition Act.

"The police cannot use contact tracing data (in investigations) that fall outside of the seven categories," he said.

"Should a police officer make (such) a request, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office and Ministry of Health would not be permitted to provide the data."

Ms Lim also asked if a person could access their own TraceTogether data if they are being charged with a serious offence, possibly to use in their defence.

"Members of the public can request for their own data for legitimate purposes, as is the current practice today," Dr Balakrishnan replied.

"The individual can share his or her own data with anyone, including the police, the prosecution, the defence counsel, and offer his or her data to the court as evidence."

POLICE USE OF SAFEENTRY DATA

On that note, MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) asked if the police have used SafeEntry data in criminal investigations and whether any of these were for offences not considered serious.

Dr Balakrishnan responded that the police have used SafeEntry data "for investigations into offences in a number of instances", although he said he was not privy to operational details.

In the bigger picture, Ms Lim asked about the usefulness of TraceTogether data to the police, pointing out that it is "likely to be incomplete and patchy" as people can turn off their phone's Bluetooth or not carry their TraceTogether tokens.

"It is understandable that in any investigation, every piece of information is potentially useful and helpful," Mr Tan replied. "Our current framework under the CPC has enabled the police to do their job efficiently and effectively."

For instance, in a terrorist situation, a suspect's TraceTogether data could lead the police to other individuals involved in planning future attacks, therefore uncovering a terrorist ring as quickly as possible.

TAKE-UP RATE FOR TRACETOGETHER

Mr Giam pointed out that "just because 80 per cent of residents have downloaded the app or collected the token, it doesn’t mean they are actually using it".

Mr Singh said a few have shared online that they will use the TraceTogether app to gain entry to a place, only to turn off Bluetooth immediately after entering a premise. This could be because they do not want to drain their phone battery, and not necessarily due to privacy concerns, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan said that based on "broad proxies", it is estimated that 58 per cent of users use the app at least once a day, a figure that he said has remained the same before and after the initial privacy concerns surfaced.

This figure is derived from when the app pings a central database to check if the user has been in close proximity to a confirmed COVID-19 case.

When Mr Singh asked if the Government could obtain data on how many people switch off the TraceTogether app to better gauge the population's buy-in, Dr Balakrishnan said this is not possible due to the "privacy respecting design" of the system.

"The data is stored locally on your own device," he said. "The TraceTogether app only connects to the server periodically, only to download information."

Mr Giam asked when the digital contact tracing systems will be stood down, and what the criteria for determining this is.

The Government has said that "once the pandemic is over", it will cease the use of the TraceTogether and SafeEntry systems, stop collecting related data, and delete the collected data "as soon as practicable".

Dr Balakrishnan said the Bill provides for a minister to "specify a date after which a digital contact tracing system is no longer required to prevent or to control the spread of COVID-19".

"The data administrator must then delete any personal contact tracing data which is no longer required," he said.

"Police will not be able to use any personal contact tracing data, unless the data had previously been retained and used for investigations or criminal proceedings in respect of serious offences."

A BALANCE BETWEEN DATA COLLECTION AND PRIVACY

In the longer term, Mr Singh called on the Government to initiate an "immediate conversation" on the balance between the state’s collection and use of data against the individual’s right of privacy.

He pointed out that many new technologies with "public repercussions" have been rolled out, including new police cameras and the Ministry of Social and Family Development's use of video analytics, facial recognition and behavioural analytics technology at a Voluntary Children’s Home.

If the latter system is hacked, Mr Singh said it could have an impact on the children many years later, as he asked about the checks in place to safeguard this data.

"To counter scepticism and its resultant behaviours and to replace it with trust and cooperation, Singaporeans also need to better understand the necessity and ambit of data collection," he said.

"This is especially so for a new generation who are more likely to be concerned about privacy and individual rights."

Source: CNA/hz

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