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Human Rights Watch calls on Govt to firewall TraceTogether data from police use

Statement follows Govt confirmation on Monday that the police can obtain TT data for criminal investigations

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Singapore — Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Government to “immediately firewall” TraceTogether (TT) data “away from the police, prosecutors and other law enforcement personnel”, according to a statement the international advocacy group released on Tuesday (Jan 5).

On Monday (Jan 4), the Government had confirmed that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) can obtain TT data for criminal investigations under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).

Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan had said in Parliament: “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.”

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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.”

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”.

On Monday, 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.”

On Tuesday (Jan 5), Dr Balakrishnan told Parliament that he had not considered the CPC when he made assurances about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards in June.

He said he had sleepless nights over this issue.

“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.

Responding to the recent events, HRW’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson, who is based in Thailand, has urged the Government to act quickly to protect Singapore residents’ right to privacy by “immediately firewalling” TT data away from law enforcement.

He said that adding a one-liner on the TT privacy statement and claiming to be transparent “is far from sufficient to mitigate the loss of trust that many Singaporeans surely feel today”. /TISG

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