TraceTogether saga: Timeline of key developments

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TraceTogether tokens being distributed to Singapore residents.
TraceTogether tokens being distributed to Singapore residents. (PHOTO: Reuters/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE — Since the TraceTogether app was introduced in March last year to help in COVID-19 contact tracing efforts in Singapore, concerns have been raised over user privacy and how data obtained from users through the app is being used.

The concerns deepened in January this year, when it was revealed in Parliament that Singapore police are empowered to obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.

A robust debate ensued, and the Parliament eventually passed an Amendment Bill on Tuesday (2 February) stating that authorities can access such data only for the purpose of contact tracing or the investigation of serious criminal offences, and not for any other uses.

Here is a timeline of the issues that surround the TraceTogether app:

20 March 2020

The TraceTogether app was launched by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to help in COVID-19 contact tracing. It works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between mobile phones to detect other participating app users in close proximity.

May 2020

Police sought and obtained access to TraceTogether data during their investigation into a murder at Punggol Fields. While they eventually caught the suspect, they were not able to obtain any useful TraceTogether data as the app was not installed on the suspect's phone. This incident was revealed for the first time during Parliament on 2 February.

5 June 2020

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative and Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced in Parliament that the government is exploring the use of wearable “tokens” in conjunction with the TraceTogether app for contact tracing.

This sparked an online petition opposing the implementations, saying that they are “blatant infringements upon (the) rights to privacy, personal space, and freedom of movement”.

8 June 2020

Dr Balakrishnan stressed during a media conference that the TraceTogether token is not meant to be used to detect offences and breaches of rules. He also said that the government was not planning to make it mandatory for residents to use the proposed tokens.

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

14 September 2020

The Singapore government began a national distribution of the TraceTogether tokens, which are free for all Singapore residents, Singaporeans and permanent residents. This comes after an initial distribution of 10,000 tokens to seniors in end-June. The tokens would also be distributed at the foreign worker dormitories.

The government had aimed for the distribution to be completed by November, but it has since been delayed until this year.

20 October 2020

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (Prime Minister’s Office) announced that the TraceTogether app will be progressively expanded to be used in more venues in order to enable the resumption of larger-scale activities. Venues include workplaces, schools, healthcare facilities, retail shops and malls.

End-October 2020

Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament on 2 February that it was in end-October last year when he found out that contact tracing data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code for criminal investigations.

He then spent November checking the Criminal Procedure Code and discussed with senior Cabinet ministers on whether it was possible to carve out TraceTogether data from the Code.

Early December 2020

Christopher de Souza, Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, filed a parliamentary question on the use of TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. Dr Balakrishnan said he thought it was right to answer it in Parliament in January.

14 December 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore will enter Phase 3 of reopening after the circuit breaker period on 28 December. Education Minister Lawrence Wong, the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce, said that Singapore is poised to achieve a participation rate of around 70 per cent in its TraceTogether programme by the end of the year – one of the requirements before Singapore can move to Phase 3.

The Ministry of Health also announced that rollout for the mandatory TraceTogether checking-in with the app or the token will be pushed back from December until early 2021.

4 January 2021

Replying to de Souza in Parliament, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan confirmed that the Singapore police are empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.

He added that public officers who recklessly or knowingly disclose such data without authorisation, or misuse the data, face fines of up to $5,000, jail terms of up to two years, or both.

Tan’s revelation prompted heated debate on social media.

5 January 2021

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said in an unscheduled statement in Parliament that he had not considered the Criminal Procedure Code when he earlier spoke about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards. “Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier,” he said.

8 January 2021

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office announced that a law will be passed to formalise assurances that data from the TraceTogether app or token can be used to look into only serious offences including murder, terrorism and rape.

“We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code,” it said.

2 February 2021

The COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament, enshrining in law that personal contact tracing data obtained from the TT, SafeEntry and BluePass systems can be used only in the investigation of serious offences.

“I take full responsibility for this mistake. And I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused,” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who added that 350 people have written in to the authorities to request that their TraceTogether data be deleted in the past month. During the same period, 390,000 people came on board the system.

More than 80 per cent of residents in Singapore are using TraceTogether.

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