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Critical need to rebuild the public's trust in TraceTogether

Critical need to rebuild the public's trust in TraceTogether

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 03 Feb 2021
Author: Grace Ho

The reality is that the recent revelation about the police being able to obtain data has chipped away at the public's trust in the sanctity of their personal data.

With over 80 per cent of the population having downloaded the app or collected the token, the TraceTogether (TT) programme, it seemed, had finally gained public acceptance after months of patchy take-up.

But acceptance turned to ire when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed last month that under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the police can obtain any data - including TT data - for the purposes of criminal investigations. It appeared to contradict the Government's earlier assurances that TT data would be used only for contact tracing.

What upset some was that the information seemed to be presented as a fait accompli. The authorities made the clarification specifically in response to a parliamentary question, and only after TT data had already been used in relation to a murder investigation.

Stepping forward yesterday to clear the air again was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

"We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TT is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code," he said with characteristic candour.

"I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I deeply regret the consternation, the anxiety that was caused by my mistake."

Several provisions of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, which he introduced on Monday and which the House passed yesterday, should provide assurance.

First, the legislation restricts the use of such data to contact tracing, and the police and other law enforcement agencies may not obtain such data except to investigate serious offences, such as murder and terrorism.

Seven categories of such offences have been carved out, and this list cannot be amended without Parliament's approval.

Second, the Government may not use the data for any purpose other than those mentioned, regardless of any other written law requiring or allowing the disclosure of the data.

Third, the minister may specify a date after which a digital contact tracing system is no longer needed to tackle Covid-19. The data administrator is then legally required to delete any personal contact tracing data that is no longer needed.

Dr Balakrishnan said that while it is right to protect public health by protecting TT data, it is "also right, and just as important, to protect public safety, especially when it comes to serious crimes".

He had a series of substantive responses to MPs' questions, the details of which are too long to reproduce here.

Some were clarifications: It was in October last year that a member of the public asked him if he was sure that the CPC did not apply, even for a murder case. Following internal checks, he was informed that it did, he said.

Some were assurances, such as the police not being able to request the data after 25 days with certain exceptions. Others were initiatives to boost transparency: He accepted Ms Nadia Samdin's (Ang Mo Kio GRC) suggestion to produce a disclosure report on the use of TT data.

Members of the House yesterday appealed to the better angels of Singaporeans' nature.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) stressed that he believed Dr Balakrishnan had made his earlier remarks in good faith.

The fact that law enforcement agencies had narrowed the list down to seven categories - one of which is drug-related offences that attract a death sentence, and not all forms of drug crimes - shows "a judicious exercise of self-restraint", Mr de Souza said.

Like Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) pointed out that there will be incomplete information and errors made in the throes of a crisis, "(but) if even one contact were traced through which one serious crime is solved or one serious crime is prevented, it would be all worthwhile".

However, the reality is that the recent revelation about the police being able to obtain data has chipped away at the public's trust in the sanctity of their personal data - trust which already took a hit with previous incidents such as the 2018 SingHealth data breach.

Will more information and transparency help repair trust, or is it merely preaching to the converted?

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) believes it is the former. On this count, he wanted to know just how vital TT data is, given that the police already have an abundance of investigative tools.

Addressing this, Mr Tan said the police requested such data only once - for a murder in May last year. But as the app was not installed in the suspect's phone, there was no useful data obtained, he added.

Together with Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), Mr Singh also made the point that TT data may be incomplete, given that many people either do not bring their tokens everywhere they go, or turn off the Bluetooth function on their phones.

The key point here is that numbers may be misleading.

While a significant proportion of the population has downloaded TT, the real issue is actual usage and whether the Government is able to track this.

Mr Singh added: "The answer to this question will determine whether TT is working as intended, or whether the Government needs to comprehensively review the public buy-in and effectiveness of the TT app and token."

Most Singaporeans are reasonable, and few would object to the data being used to probe serious crimes. What they take issue with is the perceived lack of a timely and proactive admission of an error. A vocal minority might even impute sinister motives to the authorities' actions where there are none.

The TT programme has been a cornerstone of efforts to contact-trace more effectively, and to facilitate the gradual relaxation of rules and reopening of the economy. It would be a huge loss if Singaporeans become wary of using it due to a lack of trust.

In any case, yesterday's debate came half a year after the fact. Better late than never that the minister has set the record straight, and better now than later that safeguards have been swiftly put in place through legislation.

As Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) said, in order to maintain public trust, the Government must be clear when explaining or sharing information with the public.

"If there is any misinformation, we must act at the earliest opportunity to set the record right. Ultimately, it is about the public's belief that the Government is able to solve problems, be transparent, and says what it means and means what it says."


The TT programme has been a cornerstone of efforts to contact-trace more effectively, and to facilitate the gradual relaxation of rules and reopening of the economy. It would be a huge loss if Singaporeans become wary of using it due to a lack of trust.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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