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

(PHOTOS: MCI / Screengrab from TraceTogether website)
(PHOTOS: MCI / Screengrab from TraceTogether website)

SINGAPORE — Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday (5 January) that he had not considered the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) when he earlier spoke about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards.

“Frankly, and I think members know me well, I'm always very frank. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier,” he said while making an unscheduled statement in Parliament.

“After I realised that the CPC applied to this, I did have sleepless nights wondering: Should I persuade my colleagues to change the law?

“But having thought about it, discussed, consulted people both within and outside this House, I have come to the conclusion that right now we are doing well...I think we are still on the right track,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

He added that he would be “happy” to hear any suggestions for legislative or policy changes regarding the issue from other Members of Parliament, including the Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

During a Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) press conference in June last year, Dr Balakrishnan emphasised that the TraceTogether app and token are not meant to be used to detect offences and breaches of rules, but rather for effective contact tracing.

“(The) TraceTogether app, TraceTogether running on a device, and the data generated (are) purely for contact tracing. Period,” he said at the time.

An earlier version (left) of the TraceTogether privacy statement seen next to the updated version (right). (PHOTOS: Screengrabs from TraceTogether website)
An earlier version (left) of the TraceTogether privacy statement seen next to the updated version (right). (PHOTOS: Screengrabs from TraceTogether website)

Powers must be used ‘judiciously’

Dr Balakrishnan’s explanation on Tuesday came a day after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan clarified that the police are empowered under the CPC to obtain TraceTogether data for use in criminal investigations.

Both Tan and Dr Balakrishnan emphasised that the necessary safeguards have been taken to ensure that users’ data is well protected and used by the police only in the interest of the safety and security of Singaporeans. Later on Monday, the TraceTogether privacy statement was also updated to reflect this information.

Elaborating on Section 20 of the CPC, Dr Balakrishnan said on Tuesday that it gave police the power to order anyone to produce data for the purposes of criminal investigation. This allows police to also require those involved in or assisting in criminal investigations to produce their TraceTogether tokens or the app on their smartphones.

“The police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans, and especially in very serious cases... where lives are at stake. It is not reasonable for us to say that certain classes of data should be out of reach of the police,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

“But this power on the part of the police to access data must be exercised judiciously,” he added.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that, thus far, he knew of TraceTogether data being used in the investigation of one murder case in Singapore.

In response to questions raised by Singh, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam asserted that the police use of TraceTogether data is “pretty much restricted to very serious offences”.

“And 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.

Shanmugam also said that data produced for criminal investigations would be deleted once it is no longer useful.

Asked by MacPherson SMC MP Tin Pei Ling to give some assurances that most Singaporeans would not be affected by the police use of TraceTogether data, Dr Balakrishnan replied, “The vast majority of Singaporeans are not involved in assisting in criminal investigations. In that sense, they're not affected.”

But TraceTogether and its success affects the welfare and the public health of all of us. And, in that sense, confidence in this programme makes a difference to all of us,” he added.

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TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations: Desmond Tan

78% of residents participating in TraceTogether programme – Lawrence Wong