COVID-19: Bill tabled to define use of contact tracing data in police investigations

TraceTogether tokens due to be distributed at the Jalan Besar Community Club on 14 September 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)
TraceTogether tokens due to be distributed at the Jalan Besar Community Club on 14 September 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Singapore has moved to urgently amend its COVID-19 legislation to ensure that data obtained from its contact tracing systems can be used only for contact tracing or the investigation of serious criminal offences.

The COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill was tabled Parliament on Monday (1 February) by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, on behalf of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. The systems are TraceTogether (TT) programme, which collects proximity data via the TT app and TT token, the Safe Entry national check-in system, and BluePass, a contract tracing system which can interoperate with TT.

The Bill was tabled under a Certificate of Urgency signed by President Halimah Yacob, which will allow for all three readings of it to take place in one sitting. It will be debated in Parliament on Tuesday.

In a separate media release, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office said the amendments will give legal force to the statements made in Parliament by Dr Balakrishnan and Shanmugam on 5 January that the use to TT data in criminal investigations would be “restricted to serious offences”.

These seven categories of serious offences are:

  • Unlawful use or possession of corrosive and explosive substances, firearms or dangerous weapons.

  • An offence relating to the committing, aiding, conspiring, abetting or financing of acts of terrorism under the Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act, Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act, and Terrorism (Suppression of Misuse of Radioactive Material) Act.

  • An offence relating to causing or concealment of death, or maliciously or wilfully causing grievous bodily harm (where the victim’s injury is of a life-threatening nature).

  • A drug offence that is punishable with death.

  • An offence relating to escape from custody where there is reasonable belief that the subject will cause imminent harm to others.

  • Kidnapping, abduction or hostage-taking.

  • Any form of serious sexual assault such as rape or sexual assault by penetration.

The legislation also guarantees that the government will cease the use of the TT and SE systems once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. At that point, public agencies will have to stop collecting personal contact tracing data and deleted all such collected data “as soon as practicable”.

Also specified in the Bill is that it applies only to data that identifies an individual. It does not prohibit de-identified, aggregated or anonymised data recorded in the digital contact tracing systems, such as the total number of entries in to a shopping mall, from being used in epidemiological research or to monitor the effectiveness of safe management measures, said the release.

The amendments will also see those convicted of unauthorised use or disclosure of personal contact tracing data facing fines of up to $20,000, jail terms of up to two years, or both.

(Graphic: Smart Nation and Digital Government Office)
(Graphic: Smart Nation and Digital Government Office)

Strong support required

In order for contact tracing to be carried out effectively in Singapore, strong support for and active usage of the TT app and token is needed, said the release.

“The Government is introducing this Bill under extraordinary circumstances. The legislation is intended to remove any doubt about what personal contact tracing data can be used for,” it added.

To date, more than 80 per cent of the country’s resident population have either downloaded the TT app or collected the TT token. Together with other digital contact tracing tools, TT has helped reduce the average time needed for contact tracing from four days to 1.5 days.

(Graphic: Smart Nation and Digital Government Office)
(Graphic: Smart Nation and Digital Government Office)

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