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

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

Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan speaking in Parliament on Jan 5, 2021.

SINGAPORE: While the police can obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, they can only do so by requiring a person involved in the investigation to produce his token or mobile phone, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 5).  

The issue of the police being able to obtain such information emerged in Parliament on Monday, raising privacy concerns over the national contact tracing tool for COVID-19. 

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told the House then that under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the police have the power to order anyone to produce any data, including TraceTogether data, for the purposes of a criminal investigation.

He was responding to questions from Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza, who also asked what the legal provisions and safeguards are for using such data.

A privacy statement on the TraceTogether website had earlier said the data would only be used “for contact tracing purposes”. The website was updated following Mr Tan's comments in Parliament.

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

On Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan rose to make clarifications about TraceTogether in response to Mr de Souza's questions the day earlier.

"The police can only do so, can only ask for access, by requiring a person involved in or assisting in criminal investigation to produce either his mobile smartphone or his (TraceTogether) token," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister, also said he “had not thought of” the CPC when he spoke previously about how data from TraceTogether would be used.

On Jun 5, before the planned rollout of the TraceTogether programme, Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament that TraceTogether will strictly be used for contact tracing. 

He reiterated this point a few days later when he said: "Again I want to emphasise, there is no electronic tagging. There is no geolocation tracking. This is only purely focused on Bluetooth proximity data, and only used for contact tracing.” 

READ: COVID-19 contact tracing ‘absolutely essential’; wearable TraceTogether tokens to be rolled out in June

“The keyword here is criminal investigation," said Dr Balakrishnan on Tuesday on the provisions in the CPC. 

"We have gone to great lengths to protect the privacy of all TraceTogether users in all normal use cases. But TraceTogether data is not exempt from Section (20) of the CPC."

He added: “And I think members know me well, I am always very frank. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier.

"This application of the CPC is not unique to TraceTogether data."

Dr Balakrishnan cited the example of phone or banking records that may be protected by specific privacy laws but are also subject to the same provisions under the code.  

“I think Singaporeans can understand why Section 20 of the CPC confers such broad powers. There may be serious crimes, murder, terrorist incidents where the use of TraceTogether data in police investigations may be necessary in the public interest. The police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans,” he said.

"TEMPORARY RECORD" OF CLOSE CONTACTS

Contact tracing is also “absolutely essential” for the control of COVID-19 to identify those who may have been exposed to infected patients, Dr Balakrishnan stressed. 

“We have always been conscious of the need to protect personal privacy. And to this end we took great effort in the design of the system, the coding of the application, we even open-sourced the code for public scrutiny and to share with overseas jurisdictions,” he added.

Dr Balakrishnan said that TraceTogether only collects Bluetooth proximity data “on a temporary basis”. 

“It does not collect - and I want to emphasise - it does not collect GPS location data nor movement data. So let me reiterate this - the TraceTogether app and the token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user,” he added

“The app or the token only keeps a temporary record of who you have come into close contact with for a prolonged basis. Neither the app nor the token tracks a user’s location.” 

The data is then stored in an encrypted form locally on the device - a user’s phone or the token. The encrypted data is then "automatically purged" after 25 days, said Dr Balakrishnan. 

“So you can see that we have taken efforts, maximum efforts, to protect privacy while enabling contact tracing to be facilitated through digital means.” 

LISTEN: TraceTogether token and contact tracing apps - Privacy, data usage and other big questions

Adding that the Government does not “take the trust of Singaporeans lightly”, Dr Balakrishnan said the country cannot prevail in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic if Singaporeans did not trust public health authorities and the Government. 

“We are grateful that more than three-quarters of our residents have chosen to participate in their TraceTogether programme. It reflects not only their willingness to play a part in our collective fight against COVID-19 but also their confidence in the government commitment to protect the data so collected,” he continued. 

“I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy, and I would add, that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over and there is no longer a need for contact tracing we would most happily and cheerfully stand the programme down.” 

USE OF TRACETOGETHER DATA LIMITED TO "VERY SERIOUS OFFENCES": SHANMUGAM

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh thanked Dr Balakrishnan for acknowledging that the CPC “wasn’t really in his contemplation” when his original statements were made. 

He then asked Dr Balakrishnan and Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam to explain under what circumstances the police would “judiciously” use the information collected by the TraceTogether programme. 

Under Section 20 of the CPC, the police are authorised to recover or seek any information in the possession of a person “as long as the seeking of such information is not excluded by some other written law”, said Mr Shanmugam, adding that there are some provisions that circumscribe the exercise of police powers. 

“Subject to that, the CPC gives the power to the police. And when such a power is given, police are obviously under a duty as well.” 

He gave the example of a hypothetical murder case in which relevant information was available through a TraceTogether token. 

“If the police chose not to seek that information, you can imagine how the victim’s family and indeed the rest of Singapore might react to that situation,” he said. 

But given that the TraceTogether programme is of “national importance” and “necessary” for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the police's use of data collected by TraceTogether is restricted to “very serious offences”, said Mr Shanmugam.

“While that requirement is not in the legislation, it will be carefully considered within the police and discretion will be exercised in seeking this information,” he added.

READ: TraceTogether-only SafeEntry check-in to be used at popular venues as Singapore resumes larger-scale activities

Although relevant information collected by TraceTogether may be produced in court during a trial, data of “no particular use” will be deleted at the end of a police investigation, said Mr Shanmugam in response to a question from Mr de Souza.

Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai asked Dr Balakrishnan for the number of instances when the police have used TraceTogether data and thanked him for responding to the strong public reaction.

“However I would also like the minister to clarify further - one, when did he discover that his statement that he made before is going to be affected by the CPC?" said Mr Leong.

“Two, his message today. Is it he wants to apologise that the Government or the minister has made an oversight, or is his message telling us that in Singapore we should just take it that the Criminal Procedure Code will be able to access all the information that they have on us in Singapore?” 

In response, Dr Balakrishnan said instances of TraceTogether data being used by the police is an “operational question”. 

“As far as I am aware, so far I think there has been only one in which involved a murder case. But I am not privy to operational details and I shouldn't be and therefore I am not in a position to comment further on the investigations,” he added. 

Dr Balakrishnan then reiterated that he made the statements when the CPC was “not in my mind”. 

“Subsequently, we’ve been having discussions, especially over the last few weeks as to whether we should in fact change the law or whether we continue as we are now,” he said. 

Those involved decided that it is “better to be upfront” and are “very glad” that the parliamentary question was asked and answered on Monday, he continued. 

Adding that he is “obsessively concerned” with accuracy with an “absolute adherence to honesty”, Dr Balakrishnan said: “And that means over the years from time to time when I have misspoken I have said so. I have never shied away from saying so because it is far more important to maintain trust. 

“I might be right or I might be wrong or I might have mistaken something or overlooked something, but rest assured when I discover it, I will say so and to the best extent possible, we will find a solution together. That is my approach and I don’t see any need to change from that and I hope you understand.” 

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Source: CNA/hw(gs)

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