Clarification on the Usage of TraceTogether Data by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

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Clarification on the Usage of TraceTogether Data by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister- in-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, in Parliament on Tuesday, 5 January 2021

I wish to clarify three points on the TraceTogether (TT) programme. First, on the purpose of the programme; second, the built-in protection for privacy; and third, the legal provisions governing the use of TraceTogether data.

First point: Contact tracing is absolutely essential for the control of COVID-19. We need to quickly identify everyone who has been exposed or potentially exposed to a patient who is infected in order to provide the necessary care to this close contact and to reduce the probability of them passing on the virus. In other words, to be able to truncate chains of transmission quickly, effectively, and early.

We have today in Singapore, perhaps the most successful contact tracing programme in the world with a TT participation rate of 78%. This is one of the key reasons for our current good control of the COVID-19 situation in Singapore today.

Second point: We have always been conscious of the need to protect personal privacy. To this end, we took great effort in the design of the system, the coding of the application. We even open-sourced the code for public scrutiny, and to share with overseas jurisdictions. TraceTogether only collects Bluetooth proximity data on a temporary basis. It does not collect GPS location data or movement data.

Let me reiterate this: The TT app and token were not designed to allow any government agency to track the user. The app or token only keeps a temporary record of who you have come into close contact with for a prolonged basis. Neither the app nor the token tracks a users location. The data is then stored in encrypted form locally on your device – either your mobile phone or your token. And the encrypted data is automatically purged after 25 days. We have taken maximum efforts to protect privacy while enabling contact tracing to be facilitated through digital means.

Third point: On legal provisions. Under Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the Police have the power to order anyone to produce data for the purposes of a criminal investigation. And the key word here is criminal investigation. We have gone to great lengths to protect the privacy of all TT users in all normal use cases, but TraceTogether data is not exempt from section 20 of the CPC. Police can only ask for access by requiring a person involved in or assisting a criminal investigation to produce either his smartphone or his token. Frankly, I had not thought of the CPC when I spoke earlier. This application of the CPC is not unique to TT data. Other forms of sensitive data, for example phone or banking records, which may be protected by specific privacy laws, are also nevertheless subject to the provision of the CPC. And from time to time, the Police have done so, with proper safeguards, and with the good outcomes that Singaporeans have come to expect from our police investigations.

I think Singaporeans can understand why Section 20 of the CPC confers such broad powers. There may be serious crimes like murders or terrorist incidents where the use of TT data in police investigations may be necessary, in the public interest. The Police must be given the tools to bring criminals to justice, and protect the safety and security of all Singaporeans. Especially in very serious cases, and where lives are at stake, it is not reasonable for us to say that certain classes of data should be out of reach of the Police. This power – on the part of the Police – to access data must be exercised judiciously, and with utmost restraint. 

Mr Speaker, we do not take the trust of Singaporeans lightly. We cannot prevail in the battle against COVID-19 if Singaporeans did not trust the public health authorities and the Government. We are grateful that more than three quarters of our residents have chosen to participate in the TT programme. It reflects not only their willingness to play a part in our collective fight against COVID-19, but also their confidence in the Governments commitment to protect the data collected. I want to again assure Singaporeans that your confidence is not misplaced. We will protect your privacy. I would add that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and there is no longer a need for contact tracing, we will most happily and cheerfully stand the TT programme down.

Mr Speaker, members of this House, every society has to find the right balance between protecting public health on one hand, and personal privacy on the other. I believe it is possible to find that optimal point by being transparent, open, diligent, disciplined, and doing our best all the time collectively.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will be happy to take questions with your permission.

Last updated on 10 Jan 2021