SINGAPORE: Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 2) passed a Bill to restrict the use of personal contact tracing data to seven serious crimes, including murder and terrorism.
Privacy concerns over the TraceTogether national contact tracing tool for COVID-19 were raised after it emerged in Parliament last month that the police have the power to order anyone to produce data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations.
The Government had earlier said that TraceTogether data would be strictly used for contact tracing.
The COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill was introduced on a Certificate of Urgency on Monday.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who tabled the Bill, said the Government acknowledged its "error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt" from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
In his speeches on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan assumed responsibility for the mistake.
"I take full responsibility for this mistake and I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused by my mistake,” said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.
The new law makes clear that the police can apply to use the data only for offences related to terrorism, the use of firearms and dangerous weapons, drug offences that attract the death penalty, murder, kidnapping and serious sexual offences such as rape.
The minister can approve the addition of future contact tracing systems that fall under these restrictions. However, the removal of any system will require Parliament’s approval.
Eighteen Members of Parliament (MPs) from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the opposition parties spoke during the five-hour long debate.
The Workers’ Party (WP) said it would prefer that contact tracing data not be used at all in police investigations, but is prepared to support a Bill that restricts the use to investigations for serious offences.
READ: WP prefers police not to use contact tracing data, but supports Bill's restrictions to protect privacy: Pritam Singh
The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), represented by Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, said it opposed the Bill.
THE NEED FOR DATA TO FIGHT CRIME
Several PAP MPs, who spoke in support of the Bill, stressed the need for the police to have all tools at its disposal, especially when investigating serious crimes. Some also asked if the police’s use of contact tracing data could be expanded to more categories of crimes.
MP Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah), who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said Singapore faces “real” threats and the Bill should be supported to achieve the greater aim of containing a pandemic and the “ancillary consequence” of fighting crimes.
Already, the carve-out of the seven offences showed Government agencies “judiciously exercising self restraint” in ensuring that TraceTogether remains geared towards contact tracing purposes.
He described the use of TraceTogether data for only drug offences that carry a death sentence as “overly restrictive”, adding that he would have preferred it to be extended to all types of drug trafficking offences
READ: TraceTogether: PAP MPs say proposed legislation addresses concerns; PSP suggests data should only be used for contact tracing
Mr Vikram Nair (PAP-Sembawang), who described the Bill as a “compromise”, noted his reservations about crimes that currently do not fall under the list of serious offences, such as violence not amounting to grievous bodily harm.
Mr Sharael Taha (PAP- Pasir Ris–Punggol) asked if the minister would consider including crimes or offences against children under the age 14 or vulnerable persons under the categories of serious offences.
“Information that may assist in investigations, even if it’s remotely helpful, should be made available to the police,” he said. “Let this be the only time where we limit access to information for our police force in the pursuit of justice.”
In response, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said that while he agreed the data would be useful, the Government had to “make a judgment call” between public health and public safety.
He added that outrage of modesty and other crimes committed against vulnerable persons are of grave concern to the police, but they rank below the seven specified categories in seriousness.
“This was a very tough balancing act for the Ministry of Home Affairs,” he said. “Nonetheless, I would like to assure members that the police will continue to investigate all offences, even though they are not in the seven categories of serious offences.”
Addressing questions on safeguards in place when it comes to the police’s access to the data, Mr Tan said requests for data can only be made by senior police officers with the rank of inspector and above.
He noted that this is the same standard of requirement when the police request for bank data from financial institutions.
Other safeguards include how requests for any contact tracing data by the police will have to be approved by the Criminal Investigation Department, Mr Tan told the House.
TRADE OFF IN PUBLIC TRUST
The issue of whether the Government’s handling of this matter had eroded public trust was raised by some MPs, such as PSP’s Mr Leong.
Noting how the police already has “broad powers” under the CPC to access documents, computers and decryption data for investigations, Mr Leong questioned “how much is the incremental benefit for a set of data that exist only for 25 days”.
"The PSP is not objecting to this Bill for the sake of objecting,” he said. “But to trade off public trust in public health measures, which must be of utmost priority in a pandemic crisis, for public safety in which we are already strong … calls into question the judgment to make such a trade-off."
Mr Xie Yao Quan (PAP-Jurong) said trust was the “lynchpin” in every layer of the country’s fight against the pandemic and exempting TraceTogether data from police investigations was “the surest way” to maintain this trust.
“This is why personally, I would much prefer - much prefer - that the Government maintains what it had communicated at the outset, and completely exempts TraceTogether data from Criminal Procedure Code provisions.”
Mr Xie added that he was initially concerned about how Singaporeans would take to the recent turn in events, but was “relieved to observe” the desire and level of participation in TraceTogether remained high.
Residents in his constituency have also told him that they recognised the Government’s “practical and calibrated approach” on this matter by limiting police access to certain crimes, he said.
Mr Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) said that the recent events may “make many Singaporeans more wary of taking Government statements at face value”.
“Some may now adopt Ronald Reagan’s adage - trust but verify”,” he said.
READ: The Big Read: What’s the big deal with data privacy? Thorny, complex issues confront citizens and governments
On public trust and its impact on public participation in TraceTogether, Dr Balakrishnan said at least 350 individuals had written in to request their TraceTogether data be deleted over the past one month.
“Every one of the 350 who has requested us to delete is a source of regret for me,” he said in his wrap-up speech for the debate.
But on the other hand, more than 390,000 people have come on board the TraceTogether programme.
“I don't want to belabor this but my simple conclusion or inference is that Singaporeans know that I misspoke but they also trust the TraceTogether system is safe,” said the minister.
“It does what it is supposed to do. It protects public health and they also trust the police to always behave lawfully.”
Dr Balakrishnan, in the same speech, also provided a timeline of when he realised that Section 20 of the CPC applied to TraceTogether data.
The minister had said in June last year that TraceTogether data would only be used for contact tracing.
Dr Balakrishnan noted 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.
The minister went on to say 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.
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.
This was followed by Mr de Souza filing 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."
Giving his take on how trust can be maintained when a mistake has been made, the minister said: “Acknowledge the error, take full responsibility, and I have done so.”
“Next, do the right thing rather than choosing the politically expedient option,” he added. “I believe in transparency, even if transparency is awkward and politically costly. But it is better to be transparent than to double down on a mistake.”
GOVERNMENT TO RELEASE DISCLOSURE REPORT
Dr Balakrishnan also said that the Government will accept a suggestion from Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) to publish a disclosure report on how personal contact tracing data has been used.
“My team will work out the details on how often and the content of these reports, but it should broadly encompass the types of data, how the data was used, as well as the number of occasions that the data has been used for purposes other from contact tracing from the day that this Act comes into force,” the minister told the House.
Addressing questions from Ms Nadia and Mr Giam on when digital contact tracing systems will be deactivated and what the criteria for determining this is, Dr Balakrishnan said this relates to the wider question of determining changing points in the pandemic and Singapore’s approach to that “has to be guided by science and public health”.
“We will monitor the overall situation closely - consider all relevant factors before adjusting our measures as we have in the last one year, with our three phases of reopening since the circuit breaker.”
Adding that “there is no standard playbook” for Singapore to rely on, the Government will have to respond to the situation as it evolves.
“This approach has served us well and we should continue to abide by this considered approach in determining the end of the pandemic,” he said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error in transcription of a quote from Dr Balakrishnan.