COMMENT: The TraceTogether affair is not just about privacy

The city-state has a programme called "TraceTogether" that a senior official admitted police could use to "obtain any data"
The city-state has a programme called "TraceTogether" that a senior official admitted police could use to "obtain any data"

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that hidden somewhere in the dark recesses of the Internet is an embarrassing photograph or revelation about you, just waiting for a bad faith actor to get his hands on it. For those unconvinced, last week’s TraceTogether app/token controversy is, in a small way, yet another example of why we need to get used to the dictum that nothing in this universe is secret or sacred.

Seven months after an official promise that TraceTogether data will be used only for tracing people who had contacts with Covid-19 patients, the government has backtracked. The police can use that information to solve serious crimes, Parliament was told last Monday (4 January). Information mined from TraceTogether was even used in a murder investigation.

This did not come as a surprise to some. Singapore is so ring-fenced by CCTV cameras and other tools that its citizens and expatriates feel safe living and working here. One talking point keeps coming back in my conversations: My daughter can go out at night and I know that she will return home safe.

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With this as a backdrop, the government might have been surprised at the criticisms that surfaced, even among some commentators who are typically pro-government. What irked many was not that security officers can use the data, but that a promise to use it only for contact tracing had not been kept.

It was a surprise to see that such a serious issue was left to a junior minister, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan, to answer in Parliament. The most charitable explanation is that the political leadership wanted him to get the exposure. It failed miserably as his response to the parliamentary question was too mechanical and clinical, such that Minister in charge of the government’s Smart Nation initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, had to intervene the next day to give a clearer and fuller explanation.

Even then, Dr Balakrishnan was coy in admitting that it was a mistake, claiming only that the issue had slipped his mind. This didn’t seem to bother Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh when he said in Parliament that he was prepared to accept the Minister’s statement, and was convinced that he had acted in good faith. Singh should not have rushed into giving that vote of confidence as the full TraceTogether story is yet to be told. Many issues continue to linger.

This was finally cleared up last Friday in a statement by the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, which also said the government will go back to Parliament to introduce a Bill that will spell out the seven crimes that TraceTogether data can be used for. “We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from Trace Together is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code,” it said.

Trust is a precious commodity

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong speaks during a media doorstop on 22 March 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong speaks during a media doorstop on 22 March 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

The leadership’s attempt to douse the disquiet quickly goes back to the way it has become the world’s poster boy for tackling COVID-19. There is only one patient in intensive care and the spread in the community has been stopped, at least for now. It is a gold medal that the leadership must be very proud of. And nothing must stain that reputation.

Having said that, what is worrisome about this whole affair is that nobody in government, not even security supremo K Shanmugam, spotted the mistake in Balakrishnan’s promise made in June. In his eagerness to get more people to embrace TraceTogether, Dr Balakrishnan could have missed the point that when it comes to police investigations, the Singapore Police Force have the power under the CPC to use TraceTogether data.

But for others like Shanmugam and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was once in charge of the Home Affairs Ministry and has an important role as Co-ordinating Minister for National Security, missing the error is an uncharacteristic lapse. To make matters worse, Teo repeated Balakrishnan’s promise in a written answer to a Parliamentary question in July.

This kind of lapse is not something one associates with a government known for its mastery of facts regarding policy and its push for zero tolerance in policy making. Singaporeans who are upset about privacy and transparency should also focus their minds on this. And the next time the government says that it doesn’t need an opposition to check it, some may want to remind it of the TraceTogether muddle.

Not to mention what Singh said at a 2015 Workers’ Party election rally, “Is this the future that we want for Singapore or our children in the next 50 years? Ownself check ownself?”

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COMMENT: Can trust in TraceTogether be restored?

I didn't think of Criminal Procedure Code when speaking earlier about TraceTogether: Vivian Balakrishnan

TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations: Desmond Tan