The police will restrict the use of data collected in Singapore’s national contact tracing programme TraceTogether to “very serious offences”, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Addressing concerns raised in Parliament about the data being accessed for criminal investigations, the Minister said: “While that requirement is not in the legislation, it will be carefully considered within the police, and discretion will be exercised in seeking this information.”

Yesterday, Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan also revealed to the House that data meant for contact tracing had been used once in a murder investigation.

He made his unscheduled remarks a day after Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said the police had the power under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to obtain TraceTogether data in carrying out a criminal investigation.

Mr Tan’s statement prompted widespread reactions online.

After Dr Balakrishnan’s remarks about the matter, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked under what circumstances the police would call on TraceTogether data.

The Workers’ Party chief said: “Some clarification of this would be quite important for members of the public because everybody wants TraceTogether to succeed, in view of the public health considerations. But this particular point has caused consternation and that also probably explains why Minister has decided to make this clarification.”

In his response to Mr Singh, Mr Shanmugam noted that the police have a duty to use the powers vested in them under the CPC.

“To give you an example, let’s say there is a murder… and information is available on the TraceTogether token,” the minister said.

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“If police chose not to seek that information, you can imagine how the victim’s family and indeed the rest of Singapore might react to that situation. You could even argue that there can be a judicial review application in such a situation.”

On the murder case where TraceTogether data was used, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Minister, said he was not privy to operational details and not in a position to comment further on the investigation.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), chairman of the Home Affairs and Law Government Parliamentary Committee, noted that in the general data protection regulations of the European Union, the police may access personal data in relation to detection, prevention, investigation as well as prosecution for criminal offences.

“So, in a sense, there is parity in relation to the Singapore situation with that of the situation in the EU,” he said.

Dr Balakrishnan also brought up a dispute between technology giant Apple and the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to highlight the potential imbalance between the authorities’ investigative power and an individual’s right to privacy.

In 2016, the FBI took Apple to court after the company declined to create new software for it to unlock an iPhone recovered from a terrorist who, in a December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people and injured 22. The FBI later found a third party to assist in unlocking the iPhone.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said he supported the use of TraceTogether in such investigations because it is not only helpful in finding out who may have been near the scene of the crime, but could also exonerate people who are wrongly accused.

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