How Far Should S’pore Legalise The Use Of TraceTogether Data?

Earlier Monday (January 4), the government revealed that TraceTogether data could be used to aid in criminal investigations, sparking an uproar among Singaporean citizens.

By law, police can obtain all data under Singapore jurisdiction for the purposes of criminal investigations, including TraceTogether data.

In response, Singaporeans cited past remarks by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on TraceTogether data used only for contact tracing.

Balakrishnan himself told a press conference in June last year that the data would be used “only for contact tracing. Period.”

However, he has since said he was unaware of the Criminal Procedure Code (CCP) which allows police access to data.

This came after Christopher de Souza of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC asked whether data collected as part of the program would be used for criminal investigations, following concerns expressed by internet users.

While Singaporeans don’t necessarily think it is unfair that the data is used in criminal investigations, they are upset that they have not been told that the data will be used for investigative purposes.

Here is our take on whether TraceTogether data should be allowed to be used in criminal cases.

We give apps access to our personal data every day

On a daily basis, we enable applications, businesses and institutions to access our personal data.

If anyone is concerned about TraceTogether data, he or she might want to check out the list of apps they have on their phones such as SingPass, internet banking apps, and transportation apps.

Chances are, these apps are already collecting your data and you have already approved the collection and use of your personal data in the legal context, whether you are aware of it or not.

For example, Grab’s privacy policy states that “in certain circumstances, you may need to provide your personal data in order to comply with legal requirements or contractual obligations, or when it is necessary to enter into a contract.”

The data collected by these apps includes your location (to detect pickup locations and abnormal route variations) or transaction information (such as payment method and distance traveled).

EZ-Link privacy policy
Image Credit: EZ-Link

In addition, EZ-Link’s privacy policy states that EZ-Link Pte Ltd must collect, use, disclose and store personal data in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Act (2012) of Singapore.

We also already give banks access to information about our ATM transactions and other banking information, including the last cash withdrawal.

Additionally, saving and exiting your SafeEntry application to locations also allows SafeEntry to know where you are and where you have been.

This begs the question: If we can allow EZ-Link, SafeEntry, and banks to collect and use our personal data, why are we concerned that our TraceTogether data will be used in criminal investigations?

TraceTogether data is actually not very useful

Additionally, TraceTogether data is unlikely to be of much use in surveys.

tracetogether app
Image credit: AFP / Getty Images

TraceTogether leverages Bluetooth signals to detect other participating mobile devices – within two meters of each other for more than 30 minutes – to allow them to identify those who have been in close contact when needed.

In fact, there are probably hundreds of other contacts that each device detects in a day.

TraceTogether does not capture the GPS position, so it would be impractical for the police to call every contact, as the majority of them may not even remember the suspect.

Unlike mobile ping, mobile operator history, SafeEntry, credit card statements, ATM transactions, TraceTogether data doesn’t reveal much about a criminal’s trail.

In fact, if you are concerned about the use of TraceTogether data in criminal matters, you might want to follow up on the people you share your personal data with.

The S’pore government doesn’t need to be fully transparent

There is no denying that TraceTogether was created for contact tracing efforts in the fight against COVID-19.

It has always been clear that TraceTogether data will be used to protect the livelihoods of Singaporeans, including the safety and security of citizens.

Therefore, the government would always prioritize the safety and security of Singaporeans over individual freedoms. It also includes when we need to identify a criminal.

To be fair, Singaporeans are not opposed to the use of their data in criminal investigations. Instead, they are upset that they weren’t informed beforehand about the potential uses of their data.

Tracetogether token
Image Credit: REUTERS / Edgar Su

It wasn’t until Monday that the TraceTogether Privacy Safeguards page was updated to reflect how the Code of Criminal Procedure applies to data.

It reads: “Also, we want to be transparent with you. TraceTogether data may be used in circumstances where the safety and security of citizens is or has been affected. “

“Authorized police officers can invoke the powers of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CPC) to require users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. Singapore Police are empowered under the CPC to obtain all data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations, ”he added.

It will certainly help alleviate the anger if the government makes it clear to the nation how the data will be used to aid in criminal matters.

For example, they can provide examples, map the process, and detail what aspects of the data will be used – just like how the use of the TraceTogether token was explained when it was introduced.

Featured Image Credit: Gov.sg / Bloomberg

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Jothi Venkat

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