TraceTogether saga: 'Convenience' for police will compromise trust needed to win COVID-19 fight – Pritam

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh addresses Parliament on Tuesday, 2 February 2021. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh addresses Parliament on Tuesday, 2 February 2021. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel )

SINGAPORE — While the use of TraceTogether (TT) data would make things more convenient for the police in their investigations, it is not a good enough reason to compromise the trust necessary to win the COVID-19 fight, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Tuesday (2 February).

“As it stands, the police have an abundance of investigative tools. There is a legitimate view that these tools should be more than sufficient in detecting crime and securing convictions,” said Singh, citing technological tools like CCTVs and forensic examination of mobile phones and laptops.

Singh spoke at the second reading of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Amendment Bill, which aims to – among other things – enshrine in law that personal contact tracing data obtained from the TT, SafeEntry (SE) and BluePass (BP) systems can be used only in the investigation of serious offences.

Noting the “disquiet, unhappiness and cynicism” from some Singaporeans over the government’s revelation last month that TT data can be used in criminal investigations, the Workers’ Party (WP) chief told Parliament, “It comes down to a question of trust, the perceived lack of empathy over the public’s privacy concerns and discomfort with sharing mobile phone data with the authorities without sufficient assurances.”

Singh alluded to Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan’s admission that he had not considered the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) when assuring the public that TT’s data would only be used for contact tracing purposes.

“There are Singaporeans who opine that this was not fathomable or even believable,” said Singh, adding that some suspect the government of “wilful blindness or function creep”. Others even suspect that the information may have been suppressed until the threshold of 70 per cent of the population downloading the app or collecting the TraceTogether token was crossed.

Singh noted that as late as November, the Multi-Ministerial Task Force linked transiting to Phase Three with the 70 per cent threshold.

Earlier, Dr Balakrishnan took “full responsibility” for the government’s “mistake” in failing to state earlier that TT is not exempt from the CPC. “And I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused. Perhaps I was so enamoured by what I thought was the ingenuity and brilliance of (the TT system) that I got blindsided,” he said.

The Workers’ Party’s position

The WP was prepared to support the Bill with Singh saying, “A Singaporean’s right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it”. But he stated that the party preferred aligning the use of TT with the government’s original “emphatic assurances” that TT data would be used for contact tracing only.

“This is because of some Singaporeans’ residual concerns over privacy and the established discomfort about sharing cell-phone data.”

Singh cited an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) report released on 24 May last year that said 87 per cent of respondents were agreeable to imposing strict surveillance on those who need to be quarantined. But when the questioning moved to the employment of CCTVs and cell-phones to prevent the spread of COVID-19, less than half were agreeable to have their cell-phone data tracked without their consent.

Singh, who is a Member of Parliament for Aljunied, called on the government to do two things. Firstly, it must be “forthcoming, without prompting” in informing the public about what data it collects and how it ensures the robustness and integrity of its processes.

Secondly, it should ensure that Singapore’s laws reassure citizens and residents that investigatory powers and data collection are used for legitimate purposes and are subject to rigorous checks that protect them from abuse of personal data.

“Moving forward, a review of our existing laws may be required to achieve this,” said Singh.

One possibility for checking against abuse and engendering confidence would be the appointment of a neutral commissioner or an ombudsman to monitor the use of such powers by the government, and in particular, the law enforcement agencies.

National conversation needed

Singh contended that among Singaporeans, there is “a general lack of awareness” about not just the government’s powers of data collection, investigation and privacy but the rapid advance of predictive technologies for public use.

“Many are also relatively uninformed about legal or constitutional rights and responsibilities, to say nothing about the right to privacy,” said Singh.

He called on the government to start an “immediate conversation” on maintaining the balance between its collection and use of data against the individual’s right of privacy given that many new technologies with “public repercussions” are already available.

Singh said, “The absence of such a conversation in Singapore, combined with an erroneous assumption that continuing down tried and tested routes will suffice, would engender a worse outcome even presaging a disunited population.”

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COMMENT: Can trust in TraceTogether be restored?