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Parliament passes bill specifying use of TraceTogether, SafeEntry data by police

SINGAPORE — A Bill was passed on Tuesday (Feb 2) to spell out how the Government can use contact-tracing data, with some Members of Parliament (MPs) calling for the police to be granted more powers over the use of such data.

Parliament passes bill specifying use of TraceTogether, SafeEntry data by police

A user displays the TraceTogether token, used for contact tracing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus in Singapore.

  • 18 MPs debated a change to temporary Covid-19 laws that spell out the Government’s use of contact-tracing data
  • Some MPs said it is not advisable to restrict access to data for the police who need it to quickly solve crimes
  • The Government accepted a suggestion to publish reports detailing when TraceTogether data is used beyond contact-tracing purposes
  • The Bill was passed, with two Non-Constituency Members of Parliament objecting to it

 

SINGAPORE — A Bill was passed on Tuesday (Feb 2) to spell out how the Government can use contact-tracing data, with some Members of Parliament (MPs) calling for the police to be granted more powers over the use of such data.

Others raised concerns that using such data for criminal investigations would affect the take-up rate of contact-tracing programmes.

A total of 18 MPs and two political office-holders rose to speak during the debate, which lasted nearly five hours.

Two Non-Constituency MPs, Mr Leong Mun Wai and Ms Hazel Poa from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), objected to the Bill. 

Wrapping up the debate, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, said that the Bill was drafted after taking into consideration the delicate balance of the public’s right to public health, safety and privacy.

The nature of the legislation was sui generis — one of its kind — drafted in the midst of a pandemic to assure people here who are concerned about the privacy of their personal contact-tracing data, he said.

“We have taken this exceptional step because we need to focus on encouraging public participation and maintaining confidence in our public health measures,” Dr Balakrishnan said.

The Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill was tabled by Dr Balakrishnan on Monday, on behalf of Law Minister K Shanmugam under a certificate of urgency signed by President Halimah Yacob, allowing the legislation to be fast-tracked in a single parliamentary sitting.

The Bill gives legal force to assurances set out earlier by government leaders that data from the TraceTogether contact-tracing system and the SafeEntry check-in system may be used only for contact tracing, except when there is a pressing need to use such data for criminal investigations into serious offences.

It was revealed during the debate that the police had accessed TraceTogether data once for a murder that occured in May last year, in line with their powers under the Criminal Procedure Code. 

But the TraceTogether app had not been installed on the suspect’s phone so investigators were unable to obtain any useful data, Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Home Affairs said.

He was responding to questions by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Mr Leong who asked about the police’s use of TraceTogether data and when it was first accessed by the police.

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that TraceTogether was not designed as a surveillance tool and so, it will not be useful for police investigations in most instances.

Even then, he said that the Government is taking pains to carve out seven types of offences under the Bill, which lets the police use personal contact-tracing data to aid investigations into serious crimes, to show that it “does not believe in tying the hands of the police force unnecessarily”.

The seven types of offences are:

  • Kidnapping, serious sexual offences

  • Terrorism-related offences

  • Drug trafficking offences that carry the death penalty

  • Escape from legal custody where there is reasonable belief that the subject will harm others

  • Crimes where a victim is seriously hurt or killed

  • Offences involving the use or possession of corrosive substances, or offensive or dangerous weapons.

RESTRICTIONS HINDER ABILITY TO SOLVE CRIME

Several MPs, including Mr Vikram Nair of Sembawang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Mr Alex Yam of Marsiling–Yew Tee GRC, were concerned that the Bill would restrict the police's ability to conduct investigations and called for them to have more power over data instead.

Mr Yam said that the deliberate placing of restrictions on the police’s access to contact-tracing data struck him as counter-intuitive to the police’s approach towards solving crimes.

“In the course of investigations, that would be akin to walking past a bloody knife and ignoring it.”

Mr Nair said using the argument that the police have been solving crime well all this while without contact-tracing data could set a “dangerous precedent” against any new technology that could help the police solve crimes faster.

Acknowledging that access to the data could help the police solve crimes outside of what is stipulated in the Bill, Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Home Affairs, said that the police have a “very tough balancing act” and have to make a judgement call on balancing public health and public safety.

Dr Balakrishnan also assured the House that the amended law will not set any precedent for policies on how the authorities may use digital data in the future, simply because of the extraordinary circumstance in which this legislation was drafted.

Mr Sharael Taha, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, said that restrictions on the use of the data could prevent criminal suspects from proving their innocence and consequently make it harder for the police to solve its cases.

Dr Balakrishnan replied that members of the public may ask for access to their own data for legitimate purposes and may share that data with anyone, including the police or to the court as evidence.

CONCERNS OVER TAKE-UP RATE

Other members in the House, including Mr Leong from PSP and Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC, said that the debate over TraceTogether in the last month may have affected its adoption and usage rate, compromising the Government’s contact-tracing efforts.

Mr Leong argued that the public health risk of people choosing not to use TraceTogether should take priority in a pandemic over the potential solving of crimes.

Mr Ng pointed to media reports, which quoted people saying that they were choosing to turn the app off when meeting others. He asked for data that could shed light on whether the disclosure last month that the police may obtain data from TraceTogether had affected the use of the app. 

Dr Balakrishnan agreed that there could be individuals who had limited their use of the app, such as only using it when required to check into venues in tandem with the digital SafeEntry system.

Responding to Mr Ng’s query, he said that 58 per cent of people who have the TraceTogether app use it at least once a day and that this proportion has remained the same before and after it was made known last month that the police could access TraceTogether data.

However, Dr Balakrishnan said that he was unable to provide more “granular-level” data on the app’s active usage due to the privacy restrictions on the app.

RESTRICTIONS ON ACCESS TO DATA

In response to queries by MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling on the safeguards to ensure limited access to TraceTogether data, Mr Desmond Tan laid out several measures to ensure that the police do not have unfettered access to the data.

One of it is that when TraceTogether data is needed, the requesting officer must be of inspector rank and above — higher than the rank of sergeant and above as specified in the Criminal Procedure Code.

All requests for contact-tracing data must be approved by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Singapore Police Force, which is the staff authority for all investigation-related matters within the police.

Mr Gerald Giam, Workers' Party MP for Aljunied GRC, asked how many times the police have used SafeEntry data for its investigations.

Dr Balakrishnan replied that he was not privy to operational details and did not provide a figure.

He added that the digital SafeEntry system was no different from physical logs used at condominiums, for instance, to which the police already have access.

However, given that SafeEntry data is stored on a centralised government database, the Government decided to place the data under the same protections as TraceTogether under this Bill.

He said that the Government also accepted a suggestion by Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, to publish disclosure reports to help the public understand how TraceTogether’s data is being used.

The report will disclose the use of the data for circumstances beyond contact tracing, and broadly encompass areas such as the types of data, how the data was used and the number of occasions that the data has been used for reasons other than contact tracing.

In response to a query from Ms Sylvia Lim, Workers' Party MP for Aljunied GRC, on why a specific list of offences was not included in the Bill, Mr Tan said that describing the categories of scheduled offences, rather than the specific offences, is an approach employed in other Acts, such as the Extradition Act.

Related topics

TraceTogether criminal investigation police Covid-19 Vivian Balakrishnan Parliament

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