Leong Mun Wai: Backtracking TraceTogether promises erodes public trust

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Speech for the TraceTogether Urgent Bill on 2 Feb 2021

1.     Mr Speaker, Sir, we all know that the merit of this Bill rests on the tradeoffs between public trust and health on one side and and public safety on the other.   

2.     Public trust in the Government is a cornerstone of Singapore’s political system. Our people’s trust in the Government enabled the first-generation leaders to transform Singapore from a third-world country to a first-world country.

3.     This very same trust enabled the Government to combat and curtail the SARS crisis in 2003, and the H1N1 crisis in 2009.

4.     Sir, I would like to state that the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) fully supports the Government’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and we were among the first to urge the Government to make mask-wearing mandatory in the early stages of the pandemic.  

5.     However, it would be remiss of me not to state that our contact tracing programmes intrude extensively upon our people’s privacy. SafeEntry collects an individual’s NRIC, contact numbers, their location whenever they enter a building, and even how long an individual stays in a location, while TraceTogether collects who that individual was in close proximity to, and for how long.

6.     The two programmes together allow the Government to easily create a map of where an individual goes and who he associates with.

7.     Singaporeans have long accepted some erosion over their civil rights and, by extension, their privacy, in order to ensure public safety. However, when the Government announced the TraceTogether token in June 2020, there was a public backlash against TraceTogether over concerns that TraceTogether would invade their privacy and the collected data would be used for non-contact tracing purposes.

8.     In the end, our people trusted both Minister Balakrishnan’s and Senior Minister Teo’s promises that collected data would only be used for contact tracing, which was why TraceTogether adoption finally surpassed 70% in December 2020.

9.     This trust was broken during the January Parliamentary session, when not only did the Government admit that TraceTogether data (TT data) was accessible to the Singapore Police Force (“SPF”) for the purposes of criminal investigations, it was already accessed by the SPF to investigate a murder.

10.   Sir, trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. This broken promise has broken the public’s trust in the Government. It is because of this broken trust that we are gathered here today, debating a Bill that has to be passed under a Certificate of Urgency, which means that all the three readings of the Bill would be done in this Parliament sitting and there will be little time to consider its implications carefully. 

11.   To start repairing the broken trust, the Government must first answer questionsabout the follow-up process around this episode:

  • When did the SPF first access the TT data?
  • When the TT data was accessed, did the SPF consider that they would be breaking the promise that the Government gave to not use the TT data for anything other than for the purposes of fighting the pandemic?
  • Has the TT data been accessed only once, as Minister Balakrishnan has stated in the previous sitting, or more than once? If more than once, how many cases exactly has the SPF actually accessed TT data?
  • When was Cabinet first informed that TT data was accessed in a direct breach of the promise they gave?
  • Did Cabinet then give instructions to the SPF not to access TT data in light of their repeated and public promises?

These five questions apply with equal force to data collected under the SafeEntry programme, which has so far attracted less attention.

12. To proceed with this Bill without answering these questions will leave serious doubts in the public’s mind over whether this Bill is truly to rebuild public trust in the Government, or to rubber stamp the SPF’s actions after the fact. It is therefore in the spirit of rebuilding public trust that the Progress Singapore Party rises in opposition against this Bill. Allow me to elaborate.

13.       As the PSP’s Secretary-General, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, has stated, backtracking is not good politics, and it erodes the confidence and social compact of our citizens in our political institutions. At this point in the pandemic, the last thing we need is for our citizens to lose faith in the Government and start second-guessing the Government’s motives whenever it announces new measures to control the COVID-19 virus, especially when other countries around the world are experiencing new outbreaks.

14. The Government is compromising public health and public trust for some benefit in public safety by passing this Bill . Public trust in TraceTogether has been eroded, perhaps irreversibly, by this broken promise.

15.   What I have found when speaking to residents is that they are now leaving their TraceTogether tokens at home when they go out, and some are now refusing to use TraceTogether altogether because of this broken promise.  This will compromise contact-tracing efforts.  This is exceptionally dangerous in light of the uptick in community cases since Singapore’s move into Phase 3.

16. The SPF already has broad powers to access documents, things, data, computers and even decryption data under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) for the purposes of investigating crimes.  How much is the incremental benefit for a set of data that exist for only twenty-five days? 

17. Besides, I find it quite unbelievable that such criminals would carry their TraceTogether tokens while committing such crimes, especially now that the Government has announced that TT data is accessible by the SPF.

18.   Sir, the challenge of a democratic government is to use innovative technology for public safety and at the same time, not intruding into the privacy of its citizens.   Not in using any technology that is available.

19.   The Government’s biggest priority right now should be to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and persuade as many people as possible to use TraceTogether. This must be the core and primary purpose. Any other purpose that compromises on this primary purpose and cause people to reconsider using TraceTogether must be set aside.

20. Sir, the PSP is not objecting to this Bill for the sake of objecting.  We have thought of supporting it with some changes but to tradeoff public trust in public health measures which must be of utmost priority in a pandemic crisis, for public safety is too much for us.

21.   The complete ring-fencing of contact tracing data, keeping it solely for public health objectives is not unprecedented. The Australian Government has publicly committed that the data collected by their contact tracing application cannot be accessed by the police and is to be used only for contact tracing purposes, and has already passed legislation to that effect.

23.   We must also keep in mind that the COVID-19 pandemic will neither be the first, nor the last, pandemic that Singapore will have to deal with. Any action the Government takes to deal with this pandemic, be it to prioritize public health and trust, or public safety, will significantly impact our people’s trust and confidence in the Government’s actions in future pandemics or other unforeseen calamities.   

24. Therefore, when all the various issues are considered, passing this Bill may actually run against the Government’s objective of rallying everyone together to fight the pandemic which should surely be our top priority at this moment in time.

25.   In conclusion, Mr Speaker Sir, this Bill does not go far enough to assure our citizens that the Government will keep its promises and is insufficient to restore public trust in the Government during this pandemic.

26.   The Progress Singapore Party therefore stands opposed against this Bill and calls upon the Government to keep its original promise by fully exempting contact tracing data from the CPC.   

Thank you.

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