Top officials in Singapore are on the defensive amid public uproar after it was acknowledged that data collected by a semi-mandatory Covid-19 contact-tracing app is available to law enforcement.
TraceTogether is Singapore’s version of a system for tracing close contacts with the intended goal of containing outbreaks of Covid-19. First launched in March and available in the form of a mobile phone app and a physical token, it records bluetooth contacts between devices. The data helps health authorities to quickly trace potential transmissions after a case is confirmed.
At the moment, TraceTogether has more than 4.2 million users, representing almost 80 percent of people living in the city state, according to Education Minister Lawrence Wong. It is paired with other epidemic control measures, like SafeEntry, a system for tracing attendance at public venues like restaurants, so using the app gives people in Singapore more freedom in their social lives. It’s not mandatory yet, but the government plans to change it later this year, once the demand for tokens is fully met.
This week, however, public acceptance of the program was dealt a blow when it was revealed that TraceTogether data was not only used by health officials tackling the infection, but also by law enforcement, contrary to earlier public statements.
The bombshell was dropped on Monday by Desmond Tan, the minister of state in the Home Affairs Ministry, during a questions session in parliament. When questioned by MPs, he acknowledged that privacy provisions of the program did not prevent its use in investigations under the Singapore Criminal Procedure Code. The TraceTogether webpage was consequently updated to reflect this.
The revelation sparked anger in Singapore, with Wong and fellow cabinet member Vivian Balakrishnan, the foreign minister who also heads the digital governance Smart Nation Initiative, taking most flak. Both officials are on the record stating the program would be used for contact tracing only.
On Tuesday, Balakrishnan defended the app in parliament, saying he “had not thought of” the criminal code when he was giving his privacy assurances in June.
“I think Singaporeans can understand why [the law] confers such broad powers. There may be serious crimes, murder, terrorist incidents where the use of TraceTogether data in police investigations may be necessary in the public interest,” he said, adding that “the police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans.”
Balakrishnan also stressed that, as of now, there has only been once case of police intervention, which involved murder. The minister said Singapore maintained a good balance between privacy and public safety with the TraceTogether. He contrasted it to the US, where law enforcement had to spend “millions” to get access to a dead terrorist’s phone through hacking.
Singapore’s response to Covid-19, including the contact tracing program, is widely considered a success, with no significant outbreaks of the infection recorded since August. Its death toll currently stands at 29.