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Police will restrict use of TraceTogether data to very serious offences

Police will restrict use of TraceTogether data to very serious offences

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 06 Jan 2021
Author: Hariz Baharudin

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam further noted that the police have a duty to use the powers vested in them under the Criminal Procedure Code.

The police will restrict the use of data collected in Singapore's national contact tracing programme TraceTogether to "very serious offences", Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Addressing concerns raised in Parliament about the data being accessed for criminal investigations, the Minister said: "While that requirement is not in the legislation, it will be carefully considered within the police, and discretion will be exercised in seeking this information."

Yesterday, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan also revealed to the House that data meant for contact tracing had been used once in a murder investigation.

He made his unscheduled remarks a day after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said the police had the power under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain TraceTogether data in carrying out a criminal investigation.

Mr Tan's statement prompted widespread reactions online.

After Dr Balakrishnan's remarks about the matter, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked under what circumstances the police would call on TraceTogether data.

The Workers' Party chief said: "Some clarification of this would be quite important for members of the public because everybody wants TraceTogether to succeed, in view of the public health considerations. But this particular point has caused consternation and that also probably explains why Minister has decided to make this clarification."

In his response to Mr Singh, Mr Shanmugam noted that the police have a duty to use the powers vested in them under the CPC.

"To give you an example, let's say there is a murder... and information is available on the TraceTogether token," the minister said.

"If police chose not to seek that information, you can imagine how the victim's family and indeed the rest of Singapore might react to that situation. You could even argue that there can be a judicial review application in such a situation."

On the murder case where TraceTogether data was used, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, said he was not privy to operational details and not in a position to comment further on the investigation.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), chairman of the Home Affairs and Law Government Parliamentary Committee, noted that in the general data protection regulations of the European Union, the police may access personal data in relation to detection, prevention, investigation as well as prosecution for criminal offences.

"So, in a sense, there is parity in relation to the Singapore situation with that of the situation in the EU," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan also brought up a dispute between technology giant Apple and the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to highlight the potential imbalance between the authorities' investigative power and an individual's right to privacy.

In 2016, the FBI took Apple to court after the company declined to create new software for it to unlock an iPhone recovered from a terrorist who, in a December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people and injured 22. The FBI later found a third party to assist in unlocking the iPhone.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said he supported the use of TraceTogether in such investigations because it is not only helpful in finding out who may have been near the scene of the crime, but could also exonerate people who are wrongly accused.



Police's ability to use data raises questions on trust

The revelation that TraceTogether data can be used for police investigations has raised questions over trust in government, especially in relation to data privacy, said observers yesterday.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU) said the news came across as the Government backtracking on its earlier assurance that TraceTogether would be used only for contact tracing.

"It clearly undermines their trust and credibility," said the former Nominated MP.

"This damage could undermine its future efforts, given its reiteration that Singapore has only managed to keep Covid-19 under control due to the people's trust in the Government's measures."

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng said in a Facebook post that the Government "should have been upfront that some privacy will be sacrificed for safety and security".

After Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan on Monday said police are empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, netizens were quick to cite remarks by Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan during a June 8 press conference.

He had said then that TraceTogether data would be used "purely for contact tracing, period".

Addressing the House yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan said: "Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser noted that Singaporeans generally have a high degree of trust in the Government.

But he suggested that an additional layer of safeguards should be created to allay concerns about data privacy, and make sure such data is not misused.

This could come in the form of a committee comprising prominent public figures to which the police would be accountable to, should they plan to use the TraceTogether data, he said.

"I don't think there's an easy, straightforward response to this issue," he added. "The best safeguard, in my view, is the degree to which citizens trust the Government and police that any data collected would only be used to protect citizens, rather than against them."

Ms Sheena Jacob, a partner at law firm CMS Holborn Asia, said that people's concerns about how their TraceTogether data could be used is a communications and public relations issue.

She called for better clarity around how this data will be used, to provide assurance to Singaporeans and encourage them to participate in the national contact tracing programme.

SMU's Prof Tan suggested that the Government exclude TraceTogether data from the CPC's ambit, given its original intended use for contact tracing as well as the need to convince as many people as possible to get on it.

He added: "A by-the-way or incidental use of TraceTogether should be resisted because it is far more important to have many people use the programme."

But others noted that TraceTogether data is not the only piece of information that the authorities can request, and that the law allows the police to ask for any document or data they deem necessary for investigations.

Mr Gilbert Leong, a senior partner at law firm Dentons Rodyk & Davidson, said it was not practical for the Government to review the law and declare to the public the effect of existing laws on new initiatives each time it launches something like TraceTogether.

He added that there was no backtracking of previous assurances from the Government.

While the Government only uses TraceTogether data for contact tracing, it cannot ignore provisions in the law to use the data for law enforcement, he said.

Lawyers who spoke to The Straits Times echoed a point that Dr Balakrishnan made on how the CPC applies not only to TraceTogether, but to other kinds of sensitive data protected by privacy laws such as phone or banking records.

Mr Jonathan Kok, a technology lawyer at Withers KhattarWong, said that the police have always been empowered under the CPC to issue a written order to require a person to produce any document or data they believe is necessary for their investigations.

"So if the police require a person to produce his TraceTogether device for their investigations, they are already empowered to do so under the CPC," he said.


NO EASY ANSWER

I don't think there's an easy, straightforward response to this issue. The best safeguard, in my view, is the degree to which citizens trust the Government and police that any data collected would only be used to protect citizens, rather than against them.

NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE SOCIOLOGIST TAN ERN SER


Utmost restraint in use of TraceTogether data, say ministers

The data collected by TraceTogether will be used with utmost restraint, two ministers said yesterday, as they underscored the importance of maintaining trust in the contact tracing system to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Even though the police have the powers to access the data for criminal investigations, they will do so only for very serious offences, such as murder, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament.

Also, the police can obtain the data only directly from the person's phone or the TraceTogether token, Dr Balakrishnan said.

Their remarks come after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan affirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that TraceTogether data is not precluded from provisions under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) that allow the police to access data needed in criminal investigations.

This had sparked criticism, with some pointing to remarks made in June by Dr Balakrishnan, who oversees the Smart Nation drive, that TraceTogether data would be used "purely for contact tracing, period". "Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC, when I spoke earlier," he admitted yesterday.

He added that he was mindful of the trust reposed in the Government, adding that the cooperation of Singaporeans and their willingness to use TraceTogether have been key to Singapore's fight against Covid-19.

"The reason I asked Speaker's permission to make this clarification is precisely because of this. If there's disquiet, if there's uncertainty, we must answer it, and I must answer it openly, transparently," he said.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said it was important to clarify the issue, noting it had caused consternation. He and Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) also said TraceTogether should be widely adopted in the interest of public health.

Citing that 78 per cent of people here have chosen to download the TraceTogether app or collect the token, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government was conscious of the need to protect the personal privacy of these users, and had built it into the design of the program.

He assured Singaporeans that the app collects only Bluetooth proximity data and not GPS location data, and said: "The TraceTogether app and the token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user."

But TraceTogether data is not exempt from the provisions under Section 20 of the CPC, said Dr Balakrishnan, noting that it would not be reasonable to say that certain classes of data should be "out of reach of the police", especially if they could potentially give leads on, say, terrorism activities and save lives. He disclosed that TraceTogether data had been used in a murder case.

If data is not used in such instances, it would not sit well with Singaporeans at large, added Mr Shanmugam. He also said that the police would delete the data if it was no longer needed for use in court or for trial purposes.

Dr Balakrishnan also said that when the pandemic is over, the TraceTogether programme would be stood down, and much of the data would be deleted.

He said the Ministry of Health may retain epidemiological data, but that it should be stripped of identifying details.

He added: "We do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against Covid-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities, and the Government of Singapore...

"I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy."


Data may not be that useful for criminal investigation :Forum

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan's recent statement on the use of TraceTogether data greatly undermines the repeated assurances given by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan concerning the privacy of TraceTogether data (Police can use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, Jan 5).

Mr Tan said the Singapore Police Force, not just the Ministry of Health, may have access to TraceTogether data. This has caused disappointment and resignation in many people.

In the parlance of privacy, using personal data for a purpose other than its original one comes under the concept of function creep.

TraceTogether data is collected for the purpose of contact tracing only, as originally promised by the Government.

To use the data for criminal investigation, while logical and well-intentioned, constitutes function creep, and erodes the trust the Government has built up.

This erosion is not outweighed by the supposed benefits that TraceTogether data brings to criminal investigation.

For one thing, TraceTogether data does not add to the repertoire of investigation tools. Surveillance cameras are more effective and efficient for tracking people movement.

It is also easy to circumvent: A smart criminal can simply turn off Bluetooth and show a fake SafeEntry screenshot.

Worse, by passing his phone or token to an accomplice, the criminal can create a fake alibi by pretending to be somewhere else other than the crime scene.

In other words, TraceTogether data may not be that useful for criminal investigation. But using it in this manner creates suspicion in the public mind regarding the Government's intention in promoting the app and token.

I urge the Government to reverse its decision, and to ensure that TraceTogether data is used solely for contact tracing.

Terence Sim Mong Cheng (Dr)


TraceTogether data does not add to the repertoire of investigation tools. Surveillance cameras are more effective and efficient for tracking people movement.


Privacy concerns must not supersede need for efficient law enforcement

While it is heartening to note that the 70 per cent target for using TraceTogether has been achieved, there are still some Singaporeans who are uncertain about embracing this technology.

For instance, some have taken to social media to express their concern that data collected from TraceTogether can be used by the police for criminal investigations. They view this as a breach of privacy.

These concerns are misplaced.

The police already have, and should continue to have, access to data from telcos, government agencies and other public resources to assist in their investigations. Privacy concerns must never supersede the need for efficient law enforcement.

I have also seen one Facebook post telling others how to disable the Bluetooth functionality on their smart devices to prevent the app from functioning properly.

It is highly irresponsible during a pandemic to teach others how to sabotage TraceTogether's functionality to prevent data from being exchanged.

If there is a chance encounter with a person who has been infected with the coronavirus, contact tracing might be hindered.

Ng E-Jay


Govt could have been more transparent

I do not disagree with the Government using TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, and there is nothing for me to worry about when I am a law-abiding citizen.

However, I wish the Government could have been more upfront about this when it was first asked months ago (Police can use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations, Jan 5).

Back then, the multi-ministry task force insisted the data would not be used for purposes other than Covid-19 contact tracing.

However, now that Singaporeans are being told that the data can also be used for police investigation under the Criminal Procedure Code, I cannot help but feel misled.

I'm not against the Government doing it for legitimate purposes such as criminal investigations, but the way it does so matters.

It is important for the Government to build trust among Singaporeans with transparency where necessary.

If Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza had not filed a parliamentary question on this, none of us would have been the wiser.

Sean Lim

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

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