Why data, including those from TraceTogether, is vital in policing and keeping Singapore safe
Amid concerns over privacy, the reality is that we live in an imperfect world and age of uncertainty where changes are constant, and no solution can please everyone.
The Singapore Parliament heard on Monday (Jan 4) that the TraceTogether programme continues to be essential to contact tracing. Although a year has passed since Covid-19 became a global crisis, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel remains distant.
Of greater interest is the parliamentary answer by Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Home Affairs, that the police may use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
This revelation has understandably given rise to privacy concerns.
On Tuesday, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, said that he had not thought of the CPC when he assured people earlier that the Government would use TraceTogether data for contact tracing only.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam then said that the police’s use of TraceTogether data would be restricted to serious crimes such as murder.
WAS IT LYING?
Did the Government lie to the people?
This notion is untrue as Section 20 of the CPC — which empowers the police to access specific data necessary for the investigation of crime — has been around for many years and transparent to the public.
Rather, this episode shows the need for public agencies to improve policy coordination and observe its implications for public communications and trust.
If there is an intent to lie, the Government would not make this clarification at all at the first livestreaming of Parliament.
The immediate need to focus national efforts on bringing the pandemic under control to keep people safe, and ironing out the kinks in a new system as large as TraceTogether could explain the delay in clarification.
People have the right to be alarmed but they should note that TraceTogether data is not stored on a centralised government database but encrypted and stored in people’s smartphones and tokens.
They could also write in to ask for their data to be deleted. These safeguards are in place to assuage privacy concerns.
People should also manage their emotions and try to understand why data is increasingly vital today to their safety.
It would be difficult to enjoy any privacy if the world is unsafe and if criminals are free to exploit the pandemic.
Data is vital in policing to protect people from adaptive criminals and other security threats seeking new opportunities for victimisation.
CORONAVIRUS AND CRIME
A look around the world shows that the prolonged pandemic could create new criminal opportunities and cause public order to break down.
In France, violence erupted when the police tried to shut down an illegal rave party, which about 2,500 people attended in violation of pandemic controls.
These people disregarded others' well-being probably because they believe that the police lack the capabilities to stop them.
In the United States, socio-political polarisation and economic desperation may have caused violent crimes and shoplifting to increase as the pandemic persists.
The police there, amid declining public trust, appear to lack the necessary resources to prevent such crimes from surging.
In Singapore, there were cases of theft of grocery vouchers from mailboxes, which could deprive the needy of much-needed economic support that the Government provides to help cope with the pandemic.
Such cases are low due to the various support that the Government provides to the people to prevent economic desperation.
Also, the police have the tools, especially closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, to investigate the cases and deter further crimes.
CCTV camera data has also been instrumental in solving violent crimes in public spaces since Singapore moved into Phase Two of reopening its economy.
DATA IN MODERN POLICING
Data — ranging from CCTV cameras to financial transactions — underpins contemporary methods of fighting today’s crimes and evolving security threats.
It also enables law enforcement agencies to support healthcare in keeping coronavirus transmission low and deterring socially irresponsible behaviour during pandemics.
Some people may worry about the broader surveillance capabilities that the police could attain from the ubiquity of TraceTogether application and tokens.
However, the Singapore Police Force is not suffering from the problems of police brutality and corruption that bedevil societies in other countries.
To insist that the police could be trusted only when there is zero crime is ungrounded in reality and a recipe for politicisation.
Ubiquitous surveillance is not necessarily intrusive or scary.
The extensive network of police CCTV cameras could probably match TraceTogether in terms of ubiquity.
There have been no CCTV data breach incidents or the police using data to violate people's privacy in suppressing their daily and personal lives.
But there are examples of police using CCTV data to keep people safe.
Individuals become surveillance targets only if there are suspects in crime or security threat. In a few cases where errant police officers committed unauthorised use of other data, the officers faced prosecution and punishment.
Furthermore, the eventuality that everyone must use the digital SafeEntry check-in-check-out function in TraceTogether to enter public venues would, in effect, limit the space that criminals could lurk and operate freely.
Like everyone else, potential criminals would find it challenging to move around in public without the TraceTogether app or token.
If they offend, the risk of detection and arrest would be higher.
TAKEAWAYS FOR PUBLIC AGENCIES AND PEOPLE
We can expect more sceptics and online comments in the coming days calling for public opposition and deleting the TraceTogether app from smartphones.
There could also be more international commentary critical of Singapore.
Public agencies including the police could now face a more difficult task promoting the use of TraceTogether with renewed doubts here and overseas.
This episode is an important policymaking lesson in how the fight against pandemic and crime is intertwined with the struggle to preserve public support in an era where trust in governments and science is globally in decline.
Words are as important as deeds in the relationship between people and governments.
People should note that despite what naysayers say, pandemic controls and contact tracing in particular have made Singapore an oasis of calm in a world still beset by Covid-19.
Also, anti-contact-tracing rhetoric could be as confusing as misinformation claiming vaccines are part of a government conspiracy.
But for those who insist on avoiding TraceTogether, it is their choice.
However, they should note that they face the trade-off of more exposure to Covid-19 and crime risks.
The reality is that we live in an imperfect world and age of uncertainty where changes are constant, and no solution can please everyone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a cyber and homeland defence research fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He previously worked in the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Singapore Police Force and the National Security Coordination Secretariat.
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