WP backs law; Pritam urges public to use TraceTogether
He also called on the Government to initiate a broader national conversation on privacy concerns, taking in lessons learnt from this episode.
The Workers' Party supported changes to the law passed yesterday to restrict the use of contact tracing data to serious crimes, with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh saying that Singaporeans' right to privacy will be better protected with them than without.
Mr Singh said the move to confine the use of TraceTogether data to seven types of serious crimes constitutes a "significant reduction" of the wide ambit of Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which empowers the police to obtain any data under Singapore's jurisdiction for probes.
"In other words, a Singaporean's right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it."
Towards the end of the debate, he also encouraged Singaporeans to download and use the TraceTogether app or token, despite concerns they might have over its use.
"It is the safety of the entire community that is at stake insofar as Covid-19 is concerned," he said.
Fellow WP MPs Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) raised issues such as why the Government took months to correct the misrepresentation that TraceTogether data was used for contact tracing only, and how lower usage rates might result.
In setting out his party's position on the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill, Mr Singh posed a range of questions to Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan, including how critical TraceTogether data was for criminal investigations given the number of other tools at the police's disposal.
TraceTogether will no doubt make things more convenient for the police, he said. "But it is my view that convenience for the police may not be a good enough reason to compromise the trust necessary to win the Covid-19 fight."
The WP's stance is that Singapore's top priority should be to tackle the pandemic's public health and economic effects, said the party chief. Anything that compromises this priority has to give way unless there are overwhelmingly good reasons, he added.
He noted the "disquiet, unhap-piness, and even cynicism in some quarters" following the Government's belated revelation last month.
His own preference, he said, was for TraceTogether data to be used only for contact tracing purposes, in line with "the Government's original emphatic assurances". Explaining this, he noted the concerns some Singaporeans still have about privacy, and discomfort over sharing cellphone data. "I am of the view that such an approach would also engender confidence given that a public conversation on privacy has hitherto not been ventilated in a significant way in Singapore," he said.
Mr Singh also called on the Government to initiate a broader national conversation on privacy concerns, taking in lessons learnt from this episode.
Ms Lim said it was important for the Government to make a convincing case for the use of TraceTogether data by elaborating on possible scenarios that such data could be pivotal in helping to solve.
This was especially as TraceTogether data is likely to be incomplete and patchy. Users might turn off the Bluetooth function on their phones, or not carry around their tokens all the time, she said.
Mr Giam, who said he supported the Bill with some reluctance, asked for the number of times the police has used SafeEntry data for investigations. He noted that many Singaporeans started using TraceTogether in part because they trusted the Government's assurances on privacy and limitations of use.
"This unfortunate sequence of events might make many Singaporeans more wary of taking government statements at face value."
TRACETOGETHER PROTECTS COMMUNITY
Please download the app, use the token, because it is the safety of the entire community that is at stake insofar as Covid-19 is concerned. Whatever concerns that are there that you wish to raise, I am sure your parliamentarians will bring them up in Parliament, and certainly the opposition in Parliament will do so.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION PRITAM SINGH
PANDEMIC IS TOP PRIORITY
The WP is of the view that Singapore's No. 1 priority should be to tackle the pandemic's public health and economic effects. Anything that compromises this priority has to give way unless there are overwhelming good reasons... The exceptions constitute a significant reduction of the wide ambit of Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code. In other words, a Singaporean's right to privacy is better protected with this Bill than without it.
Pritam: Is TraceTogether police access worth compromising trust?
Both sides of the House saw the issue of police access to TraceTogether data as one of balancing public health against public safety, but disagreed on the balance of risks, in Tuesday's debate on a Bill to formalise the government's approach.
Workers' Party Member of Parliament and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh asked if it was worth compromising the trust "needed to win the Covid-19 fight", for the sake of adding to the police's existing "abundance of investigative tools".
But the WP was prepared to support the Bill as it means "a significant reduction" of such access compared to prevailing law, such that privacy is better protected with the Bill than without it, he added.
Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai said allowing police access, contrary to past assurances, might compromise contact-tracing compliance. He also doubted the usefulness of such data in investigations, calling it "quite unbelievable that such criminals would carry their TraceTogether tokens".
Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan replied that the legislation aims to get maximum support for TraceTogether without tying the hands of the police.
The government will take MP Nadia Samdin's suggestion to publish reports disclosing when such data is used beyond contact tracing, he said.
At the start of the debate, in which 18 MPs and two political officeholders spoke, Dr Balakrishnan said: "We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I deeply regret the consternation, the anxiety that was caused by my mistake."
Replying to Mr Singh at the end of the debate, he gave an account of events. When TraceTogether was introduced last June, he said the data would only be used for contact-tracing, as that was the intent.
But at the end of October, a member of the public asked if Dr Balakrishnan was sure that the CPC - which empowers the police to obtain any data under Singapore's jurisdiction for criminal investigations - does not apply to TraceTogether data.
Dr Balakrishnan asked his staff to double-check. He was then informed that the CPC applied and the police had in fact requested such data once.
That has been the only request to date, for a murder in May 2020, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan. As the suspect had not installed the app, there was no useful data obtained, he added.
Dr Balakrishnan said he discussed with some senior Cabinet colleagues on whether and how to ring-fence contract-tracing data from the CPC. In early December, about a month after discussions began, MP Christopher de Souza filed a Parliamentary question on the issue, answered on Jan 4.
Dr Balakrishnan and Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam later gave assurances that use of TraceTogether data would be restricted to serious offences. Tuesday's Bill amends the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act to give legal force to this.
It covers personal contact-tracing data from the digital contact-tracing systems TraceTogether, SafeEntry, and BluePass - developed by the private sector - insofar as it is interoperable with TraceTogether. More systems can be added to this list by the Law Minister, but any removal will need Parliamentary approval.
The Bill restricts the use of such data to contact tracing and states that the police and other law enforcement agencies may not obtain such data, except for "an investigation or criminal proceeding in respect of a serious offence". Seven such offences have been set out and any change to this list requires Parliamentary approval.
For further assurance, the Bill "trumps any other written law" in stating that the government may not use the data for any purpose other than mentioned, said Dr Balakrishnan.
In the debate, several People's Action Party MPs wanted fewer or no restrictions on police access to such data.
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Source: Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.