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MPs raise privacy concerns over new laws on Govt data sharing

SINGAPORE — While members of parliament (MPs) did not doubt the benefits of data sharing between government agencies, they raised several concerns during the debate for the Public Sector (Governance) Bill, which was passed by Parliament on Monday (Jan 8).

MPs raise privacy concerns over new laws on Govt data sharing

Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament that cyber security capabilities will be strengthened by the Cyber Security Agency. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

SINGAPORE — While members of parliament (MPs) did not doubt the benefits of data sharing between government agencies, they raised several concerns during the debate for the Public Sector (Governance) Bill, which was passed by Parliament on Monday (Jan 8).

Data sharing between agencies was one of the main objectives of the new legislation, which aims to standardise key governance requirements among the 61 statutory boards. It also requires the statutory boards to comply with key corporate policies in human resources, finance, IT and office administration.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said data sharing among government agencies will provide better frontline service to citizens, and improved use of data to develop policies and programmes.

At the same time, the Bill provided safeguards on the use of data. For example, it specified the purposes for which data can be shared, and introduced criminal penalties for the unauthorised disclosure and improper use of information, and the unauthorised re-identification of anonymised data.

While the MPs acknowledged the merits of the Bill, some raised concerns about data privacy, and how data should be used. “The main concern some have with this move — is the perception that Big Brother is watching. How does the Government plan to assure citizens that they are not actively being tracked?” said Mr Zaqy Mohamed (Chua Chu Kang GRC).

He proposed that exact data of citizens not be revealed, where possible, especially for those applying for housing and welfare subsidies, for example. He added: “I understand the sensitivities of allowing officers to see such salary data and declarations… Why can’t the Government work on a points-based system to determine the eligibility of citizens for various schemes — similar to credit scoring?”

This would allow officers to make decisions without accessing actual data, he said.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) asked about guidelines and measures to ensure compliance, while Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong was concerned with how the Government might handle cyber breaches, such as hacking.

Noting that the public sector is exempt from the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), Mr Tay suggested that guidelines could be implemented to ensure that the collection, transfer and handling of data are secure.

“Data could be categorised by different levels of sensitivity and different guidelines on collecting, transferring and handling of data would apply to the different categories,” he said.

Addressing the MPs’ concerns, Mr Ong stressed that Government data is stored in “government systems, which are protected against breaches”.

He said: “The more sensitive information, such as identifiable data, will be held in designated databases with even more limited access and additional protection.”

There are various measures which the Government has undertaken to protect data, he added. For example, access and dissemination of data are controlled. “Every civil servant, public officer can only access data he is allowed to access. Access rights will continue to be prescribed based on security clearance, and data is only accessed when there is legimitate purpose or need,” he said.

The deliberate unauthorised access of information is also criminalised under other existing laws. Cyber security capabilities will also be strengthened by the Cyber Security Agency, he added.

In response to questions from MPs about how the new legislation could affect existing laws governing secrecy of data such as the Banking Act, Mr Ong said the secrecy laws will continue to be in force.

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