The “1922” short message service (SMS) is only used for contact tracing to curb the spread of COVID-19 and has never been used in criminal investigations, the National Communications Commission (NCC) said on Sunday.
The commission issued the statement after the Legislative Yuan on Friday reduced the subsidies that the commission budgeted to partially fund telecoms in maintaining their messaging service systems from NT$800 million (US$28.623 million) to NT$300 million.
On Saturday, the Chinese-language United Daily News published a letter written by Taichung District Court Judge Chang Yuan-sen (張淵森), who accused the Criminal Investigation Bureau of using the 1922 service to track suspects, citing an application for a search warrant he had reviewed.
Photo courtesy of the Taipei City Government via CNA
The commission said in the statement that information gathered through the 1922 service is only used for “disease prevention purposes,” meaning that only the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) can request access to the data.
The bureau has never requested the center’s permission to access the data, it said.
“Except for the CECC, telecoms have never offered such data to other third parties. The government has been keeping its word about how data should be used,” it added.
The Communication Security and Surveillance Act (通訊保障及監察法) stipulates that a district judge may issue an interception warrant if there is sufficient evidence that an accused or a suspect has been involved in criminal activity, and that it is reasonable to assume that the content of their communications is relevant to the case being investigated.
The warrant allows police to view or listen to communication records of suspects, including text messages sent to the 1922 hotline, the commission said.
“The communication surveillance system is regulated by the Communication Security and Surveillance Act, whereas data collected by 1922 messaging service are used by CECC to track the spread of coronavirus. The two systems are established using different regulations, setting different purposes and scopes for data gathering,” it said.
“It is regrettable that the judge made a commentary without first discerning different regulations governing access to the two systems,” it said.
Deputy Minister of the Interior Chen Tsung-yen (陳宗彥), who is a deputy head of the center, said that they have reminded police stations nationwide that they should exclude 1922 messages from criminal investigations.
The service activates the text-messaging function for the 1922 hotline, which was established by the Centers for Disease Control for people to ask questions about COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.
Regarding the budget cut for messaging services, the commission said text messages are delivered to the 1922 hotline free of charge.
As of Monday last week, more than 390 million messages had been sent to 1922, the commission said.
The subsidies would be used to help telecoms expand the capacity of their text-messaging systems to store messages and process the CECC’s contact tracing requests, the commission said.
The money spent by telecoms to maintain the systems is much more than the subsidies.
The Executive Yuan launched 1922’s messaging service on May 19, when the government issued a nationwide level 3 COVID-19 alert. Under the alert, businesses and restaurants must record customers’ names and telephone numbers, as well as the number of accompanying visitors, for contact tracing.
Businesses and restaurants need to obtain a QR code by registering on the e-Mask pre-order system (emask.taiwan.gov.tw/real) and place the code in their venues.
When entering a store or a restaurant, people need to scan the code using a smartphone and follow a prompt that appears on the screen to send a message to the 1922 hotline.
Telecoms must delete the messages from their systems after 28 days.
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