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

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

A user displays a TraceTogether token
A user displays a TraceTogether token in Singapore on Jan 5, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) who raised questions about the use of TraceTogether data in the House last week have welcomed the impending introduction of legislation to limit the use of the data for criminal investigations.

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) however, has called for the data to be reserved only for contact tracing.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said in Parliament on Jan 4 that the police could obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, an admission that raised public concern about the use of the data by authorities.

READ: Singapore Police Force can obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations: Desmond Tan

The issue was first raised on Jan 4 through a parliamentary question from Mr Christopher de Souza, a PAP MP for Holland-Bukit Timah, who had asked whether TraceTogether data would be used for criminal investigations and what were the legal provisions and safeguards in using such data.

Before, a privacy statement on the TraceTogether website had said the data would only be used “for contact tracing purposes”. The site was updated on Jan 4 to clarify that the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) applies to all data under Singapore's jurisdiction.

On Tuesday, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan rose to clarify that he had earlier "overlooked" the CPC and he faced questions on the use of the TraceTogether data from a number of MPs from both sides of the aisle.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told the House that the use of the data would be restricted to “very serious offences”.

In Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 5), Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan provided clarifications on several aspects of the TraceTogether contact tracing programme, including its purpose, privacy protection and legal provisions for use of its data by the police for criminal investigations. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam also rose to answer queries raised by members of the House.

On Friday, Singapore authorities announced that they would introduce legislation setting out seven categories of serious offences for which TraceTogether data could be used in police investigations.

offences for tracetogether app data
Categories of serious offences to be covered. (Table: Smart Nation Singapore)

The legislation will be introduced at the next Parliament sitting in February on a Certificate of Urgency.

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

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Mr De Souza said that he was glad the Government had clarified the issue.

"The news that the Government will be fast-tracking legislation to definitively clarify the seven categories of serious crimes that TraceTogether data will be used is welcome," he wrote. 

"The fast tracking of this law reflects our Government’s responsiveness towards policy-making. This is encouraging, considering that our defences and policies towards COVID-19 have had to be developed in double-quick time."

Fellow PAP MP Tin Pei Ling, who raised supplementary questions on the issue in Parliament on Tuesday, said that given the situation, this was the best move to remove ambiguity about how the data would be used.

She had asked in Parliament for Mr Balakrishnan to give assurance that the majority of Singapore residents will not be affected by this, and he reaffirmed that the data will be used only for serious crimes, and will be assessed "judiciously".

"I think (the proposed legislation) makes it even clearer ... To me, (this is) taking it one step further - you are hardcoding it in law. This is the best and most definitive way to give reassurance to Singaporeans," said Ms Tin, who is the MP for MacPherson.

READ: Police can only ask for TraceTogether data through person involved in criminal probe: Vivian Balakrishnan

But PSP chief Dr Tan Cheng Bock said in a statement that the PAP was "backtracking" on its words and that this "erodes the confidence" of citizens in the country's political institutions.

"We need to be singular in purpose when it comes to contact tracing and in our fight against this pandemic. We fear that the Government’s latest move may result in a loss of confidence in our systems," he wrote on the party's Facebook page on Sunday.

"The move shared by Minster Dr Vivian Balakrishnan to establish guidelines for the use of these data under CPC will not ease the mind of people nor help to rebuild trust. COVID tracing data must solely and strictly be used for fighting the pandemic and nothing else."

Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, who is from the PSP, had pressed Dr Balakrishnan about the use of TraceTogether data in Parliament. A PSP spokesman told CNA on Monday that their representatives in the House plan to raise further questions about this at the next sitting of Parliament.

The Workers' Party's Aljunied MP Gerald Giam also raised concerns in Parliament last week that allowing the use of the data for investigations would lead to lower adoption of the contact-tracing programme, hindering pandemic control.

The Workers' Party did not respond to CNA's queries on their reaction to the proposed legislation. 

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Source: CNA/hm(rw)

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