COMMENT: Can trust in TraceTogether be restored?

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·Senior News & Video Producer
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The TraceTogether app (left) and token (right). (PHOTOS: Getty Images / Reuters)
The TraceTogether app (left) and token (right). (PHOTOS: Getty Images / Reuters)

SINGAPORE — A seemingly straightforward question asked in Parliament this week has sparked a much larger debate over the use of data obtained by TraceTogether, Singapore’s digital COVID-19 contact tracing system.

At heart is the issue of the police having access to TraceTogether data for criminal investigations and whether such powers negatively affect public trust in the system. A delay in informing the public about such police powers from the time that the system was rolled out last year has also raised concerns.

Before I dive any deeper, here is a recap of what has taken place:

During Monday’s (4 January) Parliament session, a query was raised by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza on whether the police use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan clarified that police here are empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain data from the TraceTogether app or tokens of Singapore’s residents for the purpose of investigating crimes.

This revelation, which was previously not widely known to the public, led to many netizens claiming that the government had performed a U-turn on its initial promise that the system would be used only for contact tracing.

The following day, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan – the minister leading the TraceTogether initiative – delivered an unscheduled statement, explaining that he had not thought of the CPC when he spoke earlier about the system’s privacy safeguards.

Claiming that he had “sleepless nights” once he realised that the CPC applied to TraceTogether data, he added that he considered persuading his colleagues to change the law. However, after some consultation, he decided against the idea as Singapore is “doing well” in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Balakrishnan added that it is “not reasonable for us to say that certain classes of data should be out of reach of the police”. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also spoke to assure members of the House that the police use of TraceTogether data is “pretty much restricted to very serious offences”.

It is crucial to note that many of the current grievances are linked to earlier pronouncements concerning how TraceTogether would be used only for contact tracing. Dr Balakrishnan, for instance, said at a press conference last June, “(The) TraceTogether app, TraceTogether running on a device, and the data generated (are) purely for contact tracing. Period.”

Burning questions

Needless to say, despite the clarifications made, many unanswered questions remain.

First, when exactly did Dr Balakrishnan first realise that the CPC applied to TraceTogether data and why was this information not shared publicly soon after that? Was there also concern that the information would negatively affect public participation in TraceTogether?

Dr Balakrishnan said on Tuesday that, to his knowledge, TraceTogether data had been used by the police only in one instance – a murder case. This begs another question: How long have the police been using TraceTogether data to investigate crimes?

It seems only right that the authorities ought to have been open as soon as possible about which parties have access to data from this government-built system, and for what purpose. One can only wonder: If de Souza had not asked his question, would these issues have come to light?

Another question worth asking is on the types of “very serious offences” that justify police use of TraceTogether data.

It would be easy for most to accept that the authorities can access private data for investigations into crimes related to terrorism or national security. But many have been left wondering about the less serious offences that might be unearthed during an investigation.

If say, in the process of investigating a serious crime, the police uncover instances of an illegal gathering or a breach of a personal protection order, are they then obliged to investigate or prosecute such offences as well? Such possibilities could leave people wary of the system.

More importantly, given the outcry over the past week, will the recent revelations adversely impact TraceTogether’s participation rate and efficacy?

Yes, about 78 per cent of the resident population might be on the system currently, but it is easy to imagine that those disgruntled by the saga might start deleting their TraceTogether app, leaving their tokens at home or hiding them in shielded bags, or finding other ways to circumvent the system.

Such actions would affect the reliability and efficiency of a system that requires mass participation and is meant to help Singapore progress through the different phases of its reopening and beyond.

(PHOTOS: MCI / Screengrab from TraceTogether website)
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (left), the minister leading Singapore's TraceTogether initiative and a screengrab (right) of the TraceTogether privacy statement, which was updated on Monday (4 January) to include the CPC stipulations. (PHOTOS: MCI / Screengrab from TraceTogether website)

Can an exception be made for TraceTogether?

Distrust is a slippery slope and if people begin to lose faith in TraceTogether, actions need to be taken – and soon – to rectify the situation.

Barring a decision to make TraceTogether mandatory, one plausible option would be to place TraceTogether data out of the reach of police investigations.

Australia has attempted to do so with its COVIDSafe app – which is based on the BlueTrace protocol developed by Singapore – by introducing a Bill to ensure that data collected is only used for contact tracing. Could this not be done here, where the system’s participation rate is far higher than that in Australia (78 per cent vs 24 per cent)?

I ask because it could be argued that the costs in the form of widespread distrust arising from TraceTogether being used for anything other than contact tracing could potentially outweigh the benefits of users trusting and making proper use of the system.

The police here are already empowered by many legal provisions and possess numerous technological tools to investigate crimes of all nature.

A possible compromise could be to have TraceTogether data remain inaccessible to the police unless an appeal is made for a particularly serious case. Could the authorised use of TraceTogether data fall under the Internal Security Act for national security matters or other legislation meant to deal with the most severe offences?

Just as Dr Balakrishnan recognised the amount of effort it takes to repeatedly explain and convince people to voluntarily take part in TraceTogether, it would be worthwhile to also consider amending specific legislation surrounding the system in order to bolster public trust.

Why privacy matters

Many of my sentiments are shared by Workers’ Party MP Gerald Giam, who also pressed the issue of police access to TraceTogether data in Parliament this week. He summed up my thoughts quite well in a Facebook post on Monday, in which he said:

“Since contact tracing is key in containing the spread of COVID-19, we should remove impediments to voluntary adoption of TraceTogether, the contact tracing app. If people suspect that their TraceTogether data is being used for anything other than contact tracing, this will surely lead to lower adoption and usage.”

Giam added that he thought it was “ill-advised that the Government has not specifically ruled out the use of TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, as other countries like Australia have done”.

No one likes other people nosing about their business. And in Singapore, with the myriad of CCTV cameras positioned in public places and residential areas, it is easy for residents to feel they are constantly under surveillance.

But I’m not anti-policing either. There is no doubt that CCTV cameras can help prevent and solve crimes, and any instances of abuse of private data by public officers here are sternly dealt with. Many Singaporeans even welcome the sense of security that such a degree of surveillance brings.

However, the heightened scrutiny emanating from police access to TraceTogether data might just be a tipping point that sours people’s attitude towards the system.

The “If-you-didn’t-do-anything-wrong-there’s-nothing to worry-about” crowd may be strong proponents of the use of TraceTogether data in police investigations. But many others – myself included – would not be comfortable carrying around a device that could possibly involve us in any police investigation even if we were innocent or merely eyewitnesses.

Willingly using the TraceTogether token or app is an act of trust placed in the government by citizens who firmly believe that the system has their best interests in mind. The host of issues and grievances arising from this week’s revelations suggest this trust has been dented.

The government now needs to carefully consider how it proceeds with its messaging and policy developments concerning TraceTogether in order to rebuild that trust.

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More Singapore stories:

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

78% of residents participating in TraceTogether programme – Lawrence Wong

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