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Singapore seeks legal use of Covid tracing data in investigations

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A user displays a TraceTogether token, a Bluetooth device used in a contact tracing system to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Singapore on Jan 5, 2021. (AFP file photo)

Singapore is speeding a new law through parliament to allow the use of contact tracing data for criminal investigations after recent disclosures spurred concern that the government was using the information for more than just fighting Covid-19.

With one of the highest take-up rates among contact tracing programmes in the world, TraceTogether has been an effective tool for containing the virus. Now it’s become a test of public trust in the government after senior officials admitted that it has also been accessible to the police for crime investigations, contrary to prior statements.

Since the disclosure in parliament last week, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office has acknowledged the “error” in not revealing that the data wasn’t exempt from Singapore’s criminal code, but said it will push legislation to formalise its restricted use in investigations of serious crimes.

The bill will specify that personal data collected through digital contact tracing solutions “can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing, except where there is a clear and pressing need to use that data for criminal investigation of serious offences,” it said.

The move may add to concerns over privacy issues in contact tracing programmes that have been designed to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Efforts by many countries to use mobile apps have mostly stalled or have been abandoned amid dismal enrolment rates and worries that the technology poses a threat to privacy rights.

‘Much disquiet’

Political opposition and rights groups have called on the government to abandon the plan. Meanwhile, the disclosure over this wider-than-anticipated use of contact tracing data has also sparked comments and criticisms from the public on social media platforms like Twitter.

“Backtracking is not good politics,” former member of the ruling party and now secretary general of the opposition Progress Singapore Party Tan Cheng Bock posted on Facebook over the weekend. “There is much disquiet on how the government is handling sensitive information and we are concerned.”

The parliament sitting to hear the proposed legislation is tentatively scheduled for the first week of February, the digital government office said on Tuesday in response to queries from Bloomberg. The bill will be introduced on a certificate of urgency, the office, which comes under the Prime Minister, said last week.

It seeks to restrict the use of the data to investigating seven categories of serious crimes including murder, terrorism, kidnapping and serious sexual offences. The government has said it isn’t in the public interest to completely deny the police access to such data, when public safety or the conduct of justice is at stake.

“The police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans,” Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told parliament on Jan 5, adding that the tracing data has already been used once to assist in a murder case.

TraceTogether use

If the bill proceeds as planned, it will happen ahead of the city-state’s 2021 budget, which will be presented on Feb 16. TraceTogether is being used by about 78% of Singapore’s population. According to its website, the programme doesn’t collect data about individual GPS locations, Wifi or mobile networks being used.

In time, people will need to use the tracing technology to enter popular venues like shopping malls and restaurants, while schools will also distribute tracing tokens to students.

“The proposed law does nothing to assuage people’s concerns that their data can very quickly be pulled into uses that are wholly different from what they were told,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now they have been caught out, the government should do the right thing.”

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