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Limits imposed on use of contact tracing data by police

Limits imposed on use of contact tracing data by police

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 03 Feb 2021
Author: Kenny Chee

Bill passed restricting use of data to only serious crimes, with safeguards in place.

A Bill restricting the use of personal contact tracing data in criminal investigations to only serious crimes, such as murder and terrorism, was passed in Parliament yesterday, with assurances of safeguards to protect people's data.

This comes after a public outcry when it was revealed last month that the police could use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations as well as for contact tracing.

The safeguards in place include deleting TraceTogether and SafeEntry data for Covid-19 contact tracing from government servers when the pandemic is over, as well as encrypting any extracted data used for investigations by the police and restricting its use to only seven categories of serious crimes.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh also rose in support of the proposed law, urging Singaporeans to download the TraceTogether app or use the token because the safety of the community is at stake.

Speaking at the start of a debate on the Bill yesterday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan assured Parliament that the Government's intention in introducing it urgently was to remove any doubt among Singaporeans and assure them the data will be properly safeguarded and used appropriately.

This is so that "we may continue to focus our attention towards battling... the Covid-19 global pandemic", said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

"This is crucial because the virus is a clear, present and... growing threat. And it will remain so for some time. We cannot afford to be distracted from our fight against Covid-19," he said.

Besides TraceTogether and SafeEntry data, the Bill covers the private sector's BluePass programme, which contributes data to TraceTogether.

Dr Balakrishnan added that limiting the use of contact tracing data with the proposed law is "a result of a delicate balance between the right to public health, the right to public security and respecting the sensitivity of personal data during this extraordinary time".

Safeguards to protect people's contact tracing data include deleting the data in the TraceTogether app or token, as well as SafeEntry servers, after 25 days, so the police cannot request the data after it has been purged, he said.

Also, no other written law can override the protections offered by the Bill, which Dr Balakrishnan said was an added assurance that public agencies may not use contact tracing data for anything else.

Dr Balakrishnan also said that the Government acknowledged its error in not stating that contact tracing data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the law on criminal investigations, saying: "I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I deeply regret the consternation, the anxiety that was caused by my mistake."

As part of further safeguards, only officers who hold the rank of inspector or higher can request the data, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan.

Eighteen MPs who debated the Bill also raised many issues. These included concerns that the Bill would set a precedent in res-tricting the authorities from having access to information for future investigations.

Some called for the proposed law to expand on the list of crimes that the data could be used for, while others felt trust had been broken since assurances were given last year that the data would be used only for contact tracing.

Dr Balakrishnan clarified that SafeEntry data has been used by the police for investigations into offences before. He also said that the new legislation does not set a precedent, adding that it is sui generis - or unique.

"It is not in the public interest to deny the police access to data necessary to ensure public safety and the proper conduct of justice."


PAP MPs support law, but several worry police powers will be restricted

If a child is stalked and molested by a paedophile, and data collected by the TraceTogether programme is the only clue available, the police would not be able to use this information to arrest the suspect.

This is because such a hypothetical case, presented by Mr Don Wee (Chua Chu Kang GRC), would not qualify as a serious offence which can be investigated using contact tracing data from TraceTogether, under changes to the law approved by Parliament yesterday.

The update to the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Act lists seven categories of crimes of a significant severity or that pose an immediate threat to life or public safety - such as the use of firearms and dangerous weapons, terrorism, murder, drug offences that attract the death penalty, kidnapping and rape.

During the debate, Mr Wee and several other MPs from the ruling People's Action Party spoke out against what they saw as the restrictive nature of the changes and their potential to hinder police work.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Wee said that he was not in favour of such "special treatment" for TraceTogether data.

"Even if a crime is not under the seven categories of serious crimes, the use of the data should be authorised for police investigations or court proceedings," he said, adding that not doing so would leave the authorities with "hands and feet tied".

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) echoed his point. Citing sexual assault, violence not amounting to grievous bodily harm and non-capital drug offences as examples, he said: "These acts are not serious under the current legislation, but... if you were a victim, if one of your family members was a victim, would you want police to use all available data? I am pretty sure the answer is yes.

"If you are wrongly accused, would you want the police to use this data to show you were somewhere else at the time it happened? Probably yes. But that can't be done now."

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) said it was counterintuitive to restrict police access to the data, describing it as "akin to walking past a bloody knife and ignoring it". "While it may be rare that TraceTogether data could produce conclusive evidence, sometimes you just need one small jigsaw piece to complete the puzzle.

"While some may scoff at the idea of someone bringing their TraceTogether token along to commit crimes, not all crimes are planned," he added.

Mr Wee said: "We should not become like some Western, developed nations which cannot solve certain crimes due to privacy protection... We are an Asian society where the interests of the community are more important than the interests of the individual."

Mr Yam noted that public unhappiness was not so much over police access but the "abrupt change in terms" from an initial promise that personal data would be used solely for contact tracing purposes.

He said: "People rightfully expect better from their Government. What the Government must do now is to rectify this mistake, apologise for this miscommunication, acknowledge the concerns and reasons for the discontentment, and reassure the public on what will be done to prevent similar lapses with future policies."

Most of the PAP MPs who spoke acknowledged the balance that the proposed changes struck between preserving privacy and confidence in the contact tracing systems and ensuring the police's ability to solve major crimes would not be hindered, especially as the pandemic continues to rage.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) said: "The Bill is a compromise. It is a balance of public health and keeping everyone in Singapore safe and secure while respecting personal privacy."


Safeguards in place to ensure data is used properly: Desmond Tan

Only senior police officers will be able to request the use of data from the national contact tracing programme to investigate serious crimes. Even then, each request has to be approved by the police's Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

These are among the multiple safeguards put in place to ensure that data collected by the TraceTogether, SafeEntry and Bluepass programmes are used in police investigations only when absolutely necessary, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said in Parliament yesterday. He was addressing concerns raised by MPs like Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), who had asked for assurances that the data would be treated with utmost care, given privacy concerns.

Speaking during the debate on the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, which restricts the police's powers over such data, Mr Tan stressed that the police can request the information to investigate only seven categories of serious crimes.

They include offences of a significant severity or those that pose an immediate threat to life or public safety, such as the use of firearms, terrorism, murder, drug offences that attract the death penalty, kidnapping and rape.

Addressing MPs' questions yesterday on the safeguards, Mr Tan said that only senior officers of the rank of inspector or above will be able to request the use of the data.

He added that this is the same standard the police have to meet to request bank data from financial institutions, even though the Criminal Procedure Code specifies that such orders can be made by officers starting from the lower rank of sergeant.

He also said that the use of any contact tracing data for police probes will have to be approved by the CID. All data extracted for such purposes would also be encrypted and kept in strict confidence, with only authorised officers allowed to see it, and access tracked and logged, he pledged.

If the data is eventually used in court, that will be another avenue to ascertain that the offence being investigated falls within the seven specified categories, he said.

During the debate, Ms Nadia Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) had asked about cases where the initial charge for a serious offence is later reduced or amended, or there is another lesser offence.

Mr Tan said contact tracing data cannot be used to prosecute a non-serious offence. He said while it would not be feasible to separate the data used for investigations of serious and non-serious offences committed at the same time, if the offences are dealt with in separate trials, the prosecution will not be able to use the data in prosecuting the related non-serious offence.

MPs had also asked if the contact tracing data can be used to investigate more categories of offences. Some cited molestation and other crimes committed against vulnerable persons, arguing that the data would be particularly useful in such situations.

While Mr Tan agreed with this, he said the Government had to make a judgment call between public health and public safety. He underscored the graveness of such offences and said they would be investigated thoroughly, but noted they were considered less serious than the seven specified categories.

"The police cannot use contact tracing data that falls outside of the seven categories. Should a police officer make such a request, SNDGO (Smart Nation and Digital Government Office) and MOH (Ministry of Health) would not be permitted to provide the data, he said. He later added: "This was a very tough balancing act for the Ministry of Home Affairs.

"Nonetheless, I would like to assure Members that the police will continue to investigate all offences that are not in these seven categories of serious offences."

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had also asked why the Bill did not spell out the exact offences covered and instead only listed the categories. Noting that this has been the approach taken in other Acts, such as the Extradition Act, Mr Tan said that the seven categories relate to offences that will be obvious prima facie.


TraceTogether data accessed for murder investigation in May

The police sought - and got - access to TraceTogether data in a murder investigation last May, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan revealed in Parliament yesterday.

The Straits Times understands the murder referred to was the Punggol Fields murder.

However, investigators were not able to obtain any useful data as the app was not installed on the suspect's phone, Mr Tan said.

He was responding to questions from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai about the use of TraceTogether data by the police, and when it was first accessed.

They were speaking during the debate on amendments to restrict the police's use of TraceTogether data to seven categories of serious crimes, including murder and terrorism offences.

The change to the law, which was approved by Parliament yesterday, was introduced on a certificate of urgency following a public outcry over Mr Tan's disclosure in the House last month that the police could obtain such data for criminal investigations.

Yesterday, Mr Tan revealed that the police had requested for TraceTogether data last May in line with their powers under the Criminal Procedure Code. He added that this was the only time so far that the police have requested for the data.

It was previously reported that Mr Tay Rui Hao, 38, was stabbed near a bus stop in Punggol Field Road on May 10 last year at about 11.10pm while out on a jog.

Surajsrikan Diwakar Mani Tripathi, 20, was charged on May 17 last year with the murder of Mr Tay. The case is currently before the courts.

The data is believed to have been taken from the victim's phone, as this was prior to the roll-out of TraceTogether tokens.

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

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