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TraceTogether data use: Vivian Balakrishnan takes ‘full responsibility’ for error, says it would be ‘unconscionable’ to inhibit police work

SINGAPORE — The Government made an error in not stating that data from the TraceTogether contact-tracing system is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday (Feb 2), adding that he takes full responsibility for this mistake.

TraceTogether data use: Vivian Balakrishnan takes ‘full responsibility’ for error, says it would be ‘unconscionable’ to inhibit police work

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan speaks in Parliament on Feb 2, 2021.

  • The Government erred in not stating that TraceTogether data is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code, said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
  • The Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative expressed regret for "the consternation and anxiety caused"
  • Notwithstanding the importance of data privacy, it would be “unconscionable” to inhibit the police's abilities to act on serious offences, he added

 

SINGAPORE — The Government made an error in not stating that data from the TraceTogether contact-tracing system is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said on Tuesday (Feb 2), adding that he takes full responsibility for this mistake. 

“Perhaps I was so enamoured by what I thought was the ingenuity and brilliance of this that I got blindsided,” the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative said in Parliament as he introduced draft laws that, if passed, will spell out how the Government is allowed to use contact-tracing data.

"I regret the consternation and anxiety caused." 

The matter of TraceTogether data coming under the Criminal Procedure Code, meaning it can be used by authorities to investigate crimes and not just for contact tracing, became a matter of public debate last month when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan answered a parliamentary question on the issue. 

Upon clarifying that TraceTogether data did indeed come under the ambit of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Government stressed that such contact tracing data would only be used to investigate seven types of serious crimes.

The Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill gives legal force to the authorities’ commitments that data from TraceTogether 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.

CONTACT TRACING STILL IMPORTANT

In his speech on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan stressed the continued importance of contract tracing and the widespread use of TraceTogether, saying that such digital tools allow Singapore to break the chains of Covid-19 transmission by quickly identifying and isolating close contacts.

TraceTogether reduces the time and resources needed to collect essential data for contact tracing, he said.

Together with other digital contact-tracing systems such as SafeEntry, TraceTogether has shortened the average time required for contact tracing from four days to less than one-and-a-half days.

In the recent case where a “cruise to nowhere” passenger tested positive for Covid-19 on board the Royal Carribean’s Quantum of the Seas, TraceTogether helped the authorities quickly identify more than three-quarters of the close contacts, although the passenger’s test result turned out to be a false positive, he added.

PRIVACY SAFEGUARDS BUILT INTO TRACETOGETHER: DR BALAKRISHNAN

“TraceTogether was always designed for contact-tracing purposes,” Dr Balakrishnan said, pointing to the safeguards built into the system.

He reiterated that TraceTogether does not collect geolocation data or movement data, and only collects proximity data that is purged automatically after 25 days.

“The GovTech engineers and I took great pains to create an app that was fundamentally privacy-protecting at its core, privacy by design. We even open sourced the code and invited experts to tear down the TraceTogether token to prove this.“

The Government also intends to deactivate TraceTogether, along with other digital contact-tracing programmes, once the pandemic ebbs, added Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister. 

The draft amendments to the law also specify that after the pandemic ends, public agencies must stop collecting contact-tracing data and delete any personalised contact-tracing information collected “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

‘UNCONSCIONABLE’ TO INHIBIT POLICE

Despite the importance of data privacy, Dr Balakrishnan said it would also be “unconscionable” to inhibit the abilities of the police to act on serious offences that affect a person’s life or safety.

He quoted Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Nanyang Technological University, who raised an ethical dilemma in choosing between the right to protect public health by protecting TraceTogether data and the equally important right to protect public safety from serious crimes.

Dr Balakrishnan raised an example where a TraceTogether token might be found during police investigations into a kidnapped child. “It would be untenable to adopt a purist ideological stance and deliberately refuse to check that data and pursue all leads available.”

Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world, precisely because there is high trust in the police to act for the public good and to legally pursue all information necessary to solve and prevent crimes, he said.

The Government hopes that the draft laws, which had been tightly scoped as a specific amendment to temporary Covid-19 laws, will reassure and remove any doubt among Singaporeans over the use of contact-tracing data, he added.

“The virus is a clear, present threat on a global scale — a growing threat — and it will remain so for some time. We cannot afford to be distracted from our fight against Covid-19.”

Related topics

TraceTogether contact tracing Vivian Balakrishnan SafeEntry privacy

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