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MPs raise concerns about consent, data security with amendments to law passed to widen police’s ability to collect DNA

SINGAPORE — The police will soon be able to collect DNA samples from more crime suspects in order to expand its DNA database and better solve crimes, after amendments to the existing laws were passed on Monday (Sept 12).

MPs raise concerns about consent, data security with amendments to law passed to widen police’s ability to collect DNA
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  • Amendments to the law that allow the police to collect DNA samples from more individuals were passed in Parliament 
  • Safeguards when getting consent from vulnerable individuals to obtain their DNA samples were among the issues raised by MPs
  • More than half the MPs who spoke asked about the steps taken to protect the DNA database

SINGAPORE — The police will soon be able to collect DNA samples from more crime suspects in order to expand its DNA database and better solve crimes, after amendments to the existing laws were passed on Monday (Sept 12).

A total of 12 Members of Parliament (MPs) from both sides of the aisle spoke during the debate on the Registration of Criminals Act, raising, among other things, concerns over whether there are sufficient safeguards when getting consent from vulnerable individuals to obtain their DNA samples.

Questions on the protection of the DNA database were also raised, on top of the need for individuals to ask for the removal of their DNA data, as opposed to it being automatically expunged after a certain period of time, previously.

The amendments were first tabled in Parliament in August this year. Key changes include widening the pool of individuals from whom the police can collect DNA samples — including those who commit “eligible crimes” and those who volunteer their samples.

PROTECTING VULNERABLE INDIVIDUALS    

Workers’ Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim asked how vulnerable persons can be protected from being pressured to volunteer their DNA information, given that the amended law allows anyone not related to the crime investigated to volunteer their samples.

She gave an example of a case in 2008, where 200 migrant workers gave their blood samples following an attack on a student at Clementi Woods Park, and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had replied to her parliamentary question back then that the samples were given voluntarily.

“I do not know how the consents were obtained from the 200 workers to draw the blood samples; however, one could well ask to what extent the workers were worried that non-co-operation would jeopardise their employment in Singapore,” the MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) said.

In response, Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Home Affairs said, that most people would accept that Singaporeans are able to make up their own minds in volunteering their data.

“As for foreign workers, the fact that they may be concerned about their work permits does not negate the consent. They make the assessments and if you've done nothing wrong, there is nothing to be worried about,” Ms Sun said.

Other MPs similarly asked about other groups that they deem vulnerable, such as those under the age of 16 or people with special needs.

MP Ng Ling Ling (Ang Mo Kio GRC), for example, noted that the amended law specified that invasive samples cannot be taken from individuals under 16 unless written consent is obtained from the parents or guardians.

“However, in the amendment, it did not explicitly state the requirements for special needs individuals whom I consider as vulnerable even if they are above 16 years of age,” Ms Ng said.

Ms Sun said in reply to their questions: “Invasive body samples such as blood samples will only be collected based on consent. This applies to all individuals.

“If the individual is below 16 years old, the written consent of his parent or guardian has to be obtained.”

REASONABLE USE OF FORCE & DATA PROTECTION CONCERNS

MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) also asked about the reasonable use of force allowed under the amendment to obtain non-invasive body samples — such as cheek swabs — from individuals who are not cooperative, and what are the safeguards to protect individuals in this regard.

Ms Ng of Ang Mo Kio GRC also asked how MHA will protect special needs individuals should some force be needed to get such samples from them.

Ms Sun said: “A guilty criminal may not consent to provide data for fear of being incriminated and time is often of the essence when solving a crime. We must thus empower our police officers to use reasonable force to obtain non-invasive samples such as buccal swabs in order to solve crimes.”

She also said that the police will assess facts and circumstances when deciding to use reasonable force.

“If individuals feel that the force used was disproportionate, they can provide feedback to the Ministry of Home Affairs or lodge a police report.”

Leader of the Opposition and WP chief Pritam Singh also asked about measures taken to protect the database, given that DNA information can tell more about an individual compared to non-DNA information.

Other questions relating to data protection were also raised by six other MPs.

In response, Ms Sun said that there are “practices in place” to protect the information, with access limited to select authorised individuals.

“All access is logged and recorded, through an audit trail, to detect any data modification. The data is stored on a secured network to prevent unauthorised access,” she said.

“There is also a framework in place to manage any government data incidents. In the event of a data breach, appropriate remedial actions will be taken in accordance with standard operating procedures and workflows.”

Ms Sun also said that the ministry would study a suggestion by Radin Mas MP Melvin Yong to establish a national DNA registry, which will require every Singaporean and permanent resident to log their DNA sequence. 

Such a registry would be helpful in not only identifying criminals, but missing victims, especially if a crime scene contains hair, blood or bodily fluids that can be identified through DNA sequencing.

REMOVAL OF DNA INFORMATION 

With the latest amendments to the law, individuals who are acquitted or given a discharge amounting to an acquittal, and individuals who have their offences compounded will have to apply to the registrar for their DNA information to be removed from the authorities’ database. 

Some MPs, such as Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai, questioned the need for  acquitted accused persons to apply to have their DNA information removed.

Mr Pillai noted that previously, the law required the registrar to remove an individual’s DNA from the database within three months of an individual’s acquittal or discharge.

In reply, Ms Sun said that the authorities will remove it if an acquitted person applies to do so, except under two circumstances. 

First, where the information is relevant for another ongoing investigation or prosecution. Second, where it is in the interest of national security to retain the individual’s data.

“Subject to that, it is in society’s interests that there is a larger database of DNA — the DNA has to be collected and retained in acceptable ways. That was our rationale. If acquitted persons want their DNA to be removed, they can apply to do so,” she added.

Related topics

crime police DNA Parliament Migrant Workers

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