Balakrishnan didn’t think of police probes when assuring Singaporeans of TraceTogether privacy

Balakrishnan in a December photo with the TraceTogether token. Photo: Vivian Balakrishnan/Facebook
Balakrishnan in a December photo with the TraceTogether token. Photo: Vivian Balakrishnan/Facebook

Singapore ministers Vivian Balakrishnan and K Shanmugam took over the mics in Parliament today to address privacy concerns after it was revealed that data gathered by the TraceTogether system could be accessed for criminal investigations

Balakrishnan, who is in charge of Singapore’s digitalization movement, admitted in front of parliamentarians today that he had not thought about the Criminal Procedure Code, or CPC, when assuring Singaporeans last year that information collected through the TraceTogether coronavirus tracking app and its token could be accessed by the police when probing criminal cases such as terrorism or murder. 

K Shanmugam, who is the Minister of Home Affairs, also jumped in to say that the use of data would be restricted to “very serious offenses.”

Balakrishnan said: “Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier. After I realized that the CPC applied to this, I did have sleepless nights wondering, ‘Should I persuade my colleagues to change the law?’”

The CPC permits the retrieval of data from residents to help the police solve crimes. However, restricting its use to only serious criminal cases is not in legislation, according to Shanmugam.

“The police’s approach has been and will be that it is pretty much restricted to serious offenses and 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,” Shanmugam said today.

Both of the ministers’ reactions in parliament came amid some backlash over the lack of transparency of the TraceTogether system. It was only revealed publicly yesterday that data could be accessed by police when Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan responded to a question by Holland-Bukit Timah MP Christopher De Souza. TraceTogether was introduced in March. 

“I feel that this is a breach of public trust and confidence as the given consent for the access to personal privacy was for a very specific use,” user Ghee Phua said

“After millions have used it, they tell us this. No where in the FAQ did they mentioned this initially,” user Carl Bek Prek said

According to Balakrishnan, the TraceTogether app gathers Bluetooth proximity data on a “temporary basis.”

About 78% of Singapore’s residents have adopted the TraceTogether system, according to COVID-19 taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong yesterday. 

Other stories you should check out:

TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations: Desmond Tan

Singapore hits 70% adoption goal for government tracking system

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