I came to the conclusion a long time ago that hidden somewhere in the dark recesses of the internet is an embarrassing photo or revelation about you, just waiting for a bad faith actor to get their hands on it. For those who aren’t convinced, last week’s TraceTogether app / token controversy is, to a small extent, another example of why we have to get used to the saying that nothing in this universe is n ‘is secret or sacred.
Seven months after an official promise that TraceTogether data will only be used to trace people who have had contact with Covid-19 patients, the government has backed down. Police can use this information to solve serious crimes, Parliament was told last Monday (January 4). The information extracted from TraceTogether was even used in a murder investigation.
It came as no surprise to some. Singapore is so surrounded by CCTV cameras and other tools that its citizens and expats feel safe living and working here. One point keeps coming up in my conversations: my daughter can go out at night and I know she will come home safe and sound.
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With this as a backdrop, the government might have been surprised at the criticisms that have surfaced, even among some commentators who are generally pro-government. What annoyed many was not that security officers could use the data, but that the promise to use it only for contact tracing was not kept.
It was a surprise that such a serious question was left to a deputy minister, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Desmond Tan, to respond to Parliament. The most charitable explanation is that political leaders wanted it exposed. This failed miserably because her answer to the parliamentary question was too mechanical and clinical, so the minister in charge of the government’s Smart Nation initiative, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, had to intervene the next day to give a clearer explanation and more complete.
Even then, Dr Balakrishnan timidly admitted that this was a mistake, only claiming that the question had escaped him. This did not seem to bother opposition leader Pritam Singh when he told parliament he was ready to accept the minister’s statement and was confident he had acted in good faith. Singh shouldn’t have rushed to give that vote of confidence as the full story of TraceTogether has yet to be told. Many problems persist.
This was finally clarified last Friday in a statement from the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, which also said the government would return to Parliament to introduce a bill that will spell out the seven crimes for which TraceTogether data can be used. “We recognize our mistake in not stating that Trace Together data is not exempt from the Code of Criminal Procedure,” he said.
Trust is a precious commodity
Management’s attempt to allay concern is quickly returning to how it has become the global poster child in the fight against COVID-19. There is only one patient in intensive care and the spread in the community has been stopped, at least for now. It is a gold medal of which the management must be very proud. And nothing should tarnish this reputation.
However, what is worrying about this whole affair is that no one in government, not even security chief K Shanmugam, spotted the error in Balakrishnan’s promise made in June. In his rush to get more people to adopt TraceTogether, Dr Balakrishnan could have missed the fact that when it comes to police investigations, the Singapore Police have the authority under the CPC to use the data. TraceTogether.
But for others like Shanmugam and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was once in charge of the Home Office and has an important role as Coordinating Minister of National Security, missing the mistake is an unusual mistake. To make matters worse, Teo repeated Balakrishnan’s promise in a written response to a parliamentary question in July.
This kind of failure is not something you associate with a government known for its political grasp of the facts and its desire for zero tolerance in policy making. Singaporeans who are unhappy with privacy and transparency should focus on this as well. And the next time the government says it doesn’t need an opposition to verify it, some might want to remind it of the TraceTogether mess.
Not to mention what Singh said at a Labor Party campaign rally in 2015: “Is this the future we want for Singapore or our children in the next 50 years? Check it yourself? “
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