Vivian Balakrishnan takes 'full responsibility' over TraceTogether saga

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative. (YouTube screengrab)
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative. (YouTube screengrab)

SINGAPORE — The Singapore government has acknowledged its error in failing to state that TraceTogether (TT) is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

“I take full responsibility for this mistake. And I deeply regret the consternation and anxiety caused,” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, in Parliament on Tuesday (2 February).

“Perhaps I was so enamoured by what I thought was the ingenuity and brilliance of (the TT system) that I got blindsided.”

He spoke at the start of 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.

The revelation during a parliamentary session in January that TT data fell under the CPC, which means it is accessible to the police, caused much public debate. Dr Balakrishnan and Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam later stated that police use of TT data would be limited to probes into seven categories of serious offences.

The current Bill, which was submitted under a Certificate of Urgency, looks to give “legal force” to both ministers’ statements. It also ensures that the various contact tracing systems will be stood down once the pandemic is over and that all data obtained which is still being stored will be permanently deleted at that point.

Tough choice

Dr Balakrishnan cited Nanyang Technological University’s Professor Ang Peng Hwa, who noted the ethical dilemma of having to choose between protecting public health by preserving TT data and protecting public safety.

Using the example of a kidnapped child, Dr Balakrishnan said it would be “unconscionable” to prevent the police from having access to TT data that could potentially save the victim. Maintaining such a “purist ideological stance” would be untenable, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan added that the urgent introduction of the Bill is aimed at removing any doubt among Singaporeans and to assure them that their data will be safeguarded and used only for appropriate purposes.

“The virus is still a clear and present threat; it will remain so for some time to come. We cannot afford to be distracted from our fight against COVID-19,” he said.

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