Tech Post

Singapore reveals Covid privacy data available to police

Published : 05 Jan 2021 08:22 PM

Singapore has admitted data from its Covid contact tracing programme can also be accessed by police, reversing earlier privacy assurances.

Officials had previously explicitly ruled out the data would be used for anything other than the virus tracking, reports BBC.

But parliament was told on Monday it could also be used "for the purpose of criminal investigation".

Close to 80% of residents are signed up to the TraceTogether programme, which is used to check in to locations.

The voluntary take up increased after it was announced it would soon be needed to access anything from the supermarket to your place of work.

The TraceTogether programme, which uses either a smartphone app or a bluetooth token, also monitors who you have been in contact with.

If someone tests positive with the virus, the data allows tracers to swiftly contact anyone that might have been infected. This prompted concerns over privacy - fears which have been echoed across the world as other countries rolled out their own tracing apps.

To encourage people to enrol, Singaporean authorities promised the data would never be used for any other purpose, saying "the data will never be accessed, unless the user tests positive for Covid-19 and is contacted by the contact tracing team".

But Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told parliament on Monday that it can in fact also be used "for the purpose of criminal investigation", adding that "otherwise, TraceTogether data is to be used only for contact tracing and for the purpose of fighting the Covid situation". 

However, the privacy statement on the TraceTogether site was then updated on the same day to state that "the Criminal Procedure Code applies to all data under Singapore's jurisdiction".

"Also, we want to be transparent with you," the statement reads. "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 Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations."

'Only for criminal investigations'

On Tuesday, the country's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, clarified that it was not just TraceTogether data that was used in cases of serious criminal investigations.

He said under the CPC, "other forms of sensitive data like phone or banking records" would also have their privacy regulations overruled in such cases.

Mr Balakrishnan added that to his knowledge, police had so far only once accessed contact tracing data, in the case of a murder investigation.

The minister stressed though that "once the pandemic is over and there will no longer be a need for contact tracing, we will happily stand down the TraceTogether programme."

Monday's announcement though sparked some controversy on social media, with people calling out the government and some users posting that they had now deleted the app.