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Biometrics expert and NUS Professor urges Govt to ensure TraceTogether data is used solely for contact tracing

"To use the data for criminal investigation, while logical and well-intentioned, constitutes function creep, and erodes the trust the Government has built up,” said Dr Terence Sim Mong Cheng

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National University of Singapore (NUS) Associate Professor and biometrics expert, Dr Terence Sim Mong Cheng has urged the Government to reverse its decision to allow the police to obtain Trace Together (TT) data for serious criminal cases.

The Government had initially said that TT data would only be used for contact tracing. Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said during a Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF) press conference in June last year that the TT app and token are not meant to be used to detect offences and breaches of rules, but are only to be used for effective contact tracing.

He had stressed: “(The`) TraceTogether app, TraceTogether running on a device, and the data generated (are) purely for contact tracing. Period.”

At the time, a privacy statement on the TT website also said data collected would only be used “for contact tracing purposes”.`

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On Monday (4 Jan), however, the statement was updated to clarify how the CPC applies to all data under Singapore’s jurisdiction. The new privacy statement states: “TraceTogether data may be used in circumstances where citizen safety and security is or has been affected. The Singapore Police Force is empowered under the CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations.”

That same day, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan confirmed in Parliament that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) can obtain TT data for criminal investigations under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). He said:

“The Government is the custodian of the TT (TraceTogether) data submitted by the individuals and stringent measures are put in place to safeguard this personal data. Examples of these measures include only allowing authorised officers to access the data, using such data only for authorised purposes and storing the data on a secured data platform.”

Pointing out that public officers who misuse or disclose TT data recklessly or deliberately without authorisation may be fined up to S$5,000 or jailed up to two years, under the Public Sector (Governance) Act, Mr Tan also said:

“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well.

“Authorised police officers may invoke then the Criminal Procedure Code …powers to obtain this data for purpose of criminal investigation, and for the purpose of the safety and security of our citizens, but otherwise TraceTogether data is indeed to be used only for contact tracing and for the purpose of fighting the Covid situation.”

Dr Sim, an award-winning teacher, researcher and biometric expert, has asserted that Mr Tan’s statement “greatly undermines” Dr Balakrishnan’s repeated assurances concerning the privacy of TT data. In a forum letter published by the Straits Times on Tuesday (5 Jan), Dr Sim said that this reversal has “caused disappointment and resignation in many people.”

Pointing out that the Government’s decision erodes the people’s trust in the authorities, Dr Sim wrote: “In the parlance of privacy, using personal data for a purpose other than its original one comes under the concept of function creep.

“TraceTogether data is collected for the purpose of contact tracing only, as originally promised by the Government. To use the data for criminal investigation, while logical and well-intentioned, constitutes function creep, and erodes the trust the Government has built up.”

He added: “This erosion is not outweighed by the supposed benefits that TraceTogether data brings to criminal investigation.”

Pointing out that TT data does not add to the array of investigation tools such as surveillance cameras, which can track people movement more effectively and efficiently, Dr Sim also illustrated how the TT system can be circumvented:

He wrote: “It is also easy to circumvent: A smart criminal can simply turn off Bluetooth and show a fake SafeEntry screenshot. Worse, by passing his phone or token to an accomplice, the criminal can create a fake alibi by pretending to be somewhere else other than the crime scene.”

Stressing that TT data may not be useful for criminal investigation and using it in this way creates doubts about the Government’s motives in pushing the TT system, Dr Sim urged the authorities to reverse its decision and ensure that TT data is used solely for contact tracing.

The very day that Dr Sim’s appeal was published, Dr Balakrishnan told Parliament that he had not considered the CPC when he made assurances about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards in June. Sharing that he had sleepless nights after overlooking this issue, he said:

“Frankly, and I think members know me well, I’m always very frank. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier. After I realised that the CPC applied to this, I did have sleepless nights wondering: Should I persuade my colleagues to change the law?

“But having thought about it, discussed, consulted people both within and outside this House, I have come to the conclusion that right now we are doing well … I think we are still on the right track.”

Dr Balakrishnan said he would be “happy” to hear any suggestions for legislative or policy changes regarding the issue from other parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament that TT data will be deleted at the end of police investigations if it is not of any particular use, although such data “will have to be produced in court” when necessary and may be used for trial purposes even if it is not produced in court.

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