Singapore

Ministers say TraceTogether data will be used with utmost restraint

Data would be accessed only for investigations of serious offences

The data collected by TraceTogether will be used with utmost restraint, two ministers said yesterday as they underscored the importance of maintaining trust in the contact tracing system to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Even though the police have the powers to access the data for criminal investigations, they will do so only for very serious offences, such as murder, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament.

Also, the police can obtain the data only directly from the person's phone or TraceTogether token, Dr Balakrishnan said.

Their remarks came after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan affirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that TraceTogether data is not precluded from provisions under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that allow the police to access data needed in criminal investigations.

This had sparked criticism, with some pointing to remarks made in June by Dr Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation drive, that TraceTogether data would be used "purely for contact tracing, period".

"Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier," Dr Balakrishnan admitted yesterday.

He said he was mindful of the trust reposed in the Government, adding that the cooperation of Singaporeans and their willingness to use TraceTogether has been key in the fight against Covid-19.

"The reason I asked Speaker's permission to make this clarification is precisely because of this. If there's disquiet, if there's uncertainty, we must answer it, and I must answer it openly, transparently," he said.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh welcomed his clarification, noting the issue had caused consternation. He and Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) said it was important that TraceTogether be widely adopted in the interest of public health.

Citing that 78 per cent of people here have chosen to download the TraceTogether app or collect the token, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government was conscious of the need to protect the personal privacy of these users, and had built it into the design of the program.

But TraceTogether data is not exempt from the provisions under section 20 of the CPC, said Dr Balakrishnan, noting it would not be reasonable to say that certain classes of data should be "out of reach of the police", especially if they could potentially give leads on, say, terrorism activities and save lives.

He disclosed that TraceTogether data had been used in a murder case.

If data is not used in such instances, it would not sit well with Singaporeans at large, added Mr Shanmugam. He also said the police would delete the data if it was no longer needed for use in court or for trial purposes.

Dr Balakrishnan added: "We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans do not trust the public health authorities, and the Government of Singapore. I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy."

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