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Maria Gurova

Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, RIAC Expert

We live in a world that seems borderless and limitless. You can find almost anything you want with a short Google-search. Most of us do not believe that we are being watched. How do you feel about it? That your government can extract your personal information from your laptop, tablet, cellphone? Some would become fearful, anxious and paranoid. However, there are those who do not mind and tacitly support their state’s vision of national security. Nearly 5.5 million such people constitute a prosperous and advanced nation living in the city-state of Singapore.

We live in a world that seems borderless and limitless. You can find almost anything you want with a short Google-search. Most of us do not believe (many do not even think about it) that we are being watched. Or to tune the paranoia down — we are not necessarily being watched right now, but we can be watched at any given date, time and place. How do you feel about it? That your government can extract your personal information from your laptop, tablet, cellphone? Some would become fearful, anxious and paranoid. Yet is it true to say that, by watching us, our government can provide its citizens with greater security and ensure peace? Many would oppose any such assertion, instead defending the fundamental right to privacy. However, there are those who do not mind and tacitly support their state’s vision of national security. Nearly 5.5 million such people constitute a prosperous and advanced nation living in the city-state of Singapore.

What is lawful and what is ethical?

What used to be called the greatest bogeyman of the 20th century — “big brother” — is now not a scary bedtime story for children but rather a real problem faced by grown-ups. For the last few years the international community has been focused on how to draw a line between lawful data collection and its illegal misuse. Until Edward Snowden blew the whistle and in June 2013 released a huge amount of classified data that had been collected by the U.S. NSA and was stored in a program called PRISM, this dispute was more or less frozen. First came the terrorist attack in New York in 2001, to which the Bush administration responded by launching a gigantic counter terrorism initiative (known as the “War on terror”, it has now been moved to the bottom of his successor Barack Obama’s agenda). Under the auspices of this campaign the U.S. administration was pushing for a more intensive search for potential villains lurking within U.S. society. This gave birth to PRISM. PRISM in turn gave birth to Snowden. Snowden essentially changed the public’s attitude toward surveillance from being virtually non-existent to cautious. Recent social surveys show that Americans have become more careful about how they use technology in their day-to-day lives. Some even indicated that they are now more likely to change their social network passwords more often and have become more selective about their online exposure. Some say that the NSA has distorted a healthy and sound approach to individual privacy by breaking many securely encrypted private files back in 2013. Speaking globally, a major survey carried out by GlobScan with respondents drawn from 17 countries shows that over half (52%) of all respondents (including those in Russia and China) are wary of their online safety and exercise caution when expressing their opinions. Furthermore, Russia’s Kaspersky Lab conducted a survey in which respondents were asked if they were afraid of being watched via web cameras — again 52% are likely to be concerned. According to Mail.ru Group research, almost every third average Russian online user was simply ignorant of the possibility that their personal data could be used in ways they could not predict or control. A recent Symantec report offers an insight into how EU citizens view data privacy. The results are disturbing — 57% are worried that their personal information is not safe. This is something that should be taken into consideration by EU politicians as part of the new General Data Protection Regulation, which is likely to be adopted in 2016.

RAHS system vision

Many national governments in the West say that they are only storing big data to prevent breaches in national security (and it is worth noting that this is not without future financial benefit). The United States is leading the battle to divide personal liberty and security. Although society has traditionally been accustomed to think that one cannot achieve a greater security without ceding personal liberty — nowadays the reality no longer reflects that outdated notion. Today it is no longer possible to say “they” are evil and “we” are defenseless. Since the government cannot differentiate between potential villains and peaceful citizens, the secret services are gathering information on all citizens just to be on the safe side. Given the rapid pace of technological progress, governments can no longer forego any valuable opportunity to collect data. Without it, public authorities would be even more vulnerable to growing security threats. Access to personal metadata is not that hard to get as one might imagine, especially with data retention laws spreading rapidly across the world. Here is a very telling example of how an Australian reporter gained access to his phone metadata, which shows his entire call history, location, and amount of time he spent in any given place. All this sparks caution and mistrust among the general public, especially in Western countries. This is the case for Europe and the United States, but not for Singapore.

Despite that, some barriers remain, e.g. in the United States you still need a police warrant to bug someone (under the Fourth Amendment to the existing Constitution embedded in the 1789 Bill of Rights). However, in Singapore, the government does not even need an official excuse to start going trough personal content — thanks to very flexible and softly worded national legislation. This does not have to mean that society has no choice but to submit to this, but the chances are quite high that, in future, it will be increasingly hard to protect personal data.

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International law offers scant support in personal data protection. The UN GA universally recognizes (more or less) rights attributed to individuals and states that what is protected by law offline should be respected online. Surprisingly Singapore is among those states that contributed to delivering this resolution and later even adopted it. However, if national and organizational contributions to resolution 68/167 are compared, Singapore’s input would be the most swift and eloquent of all. Comprising just three bullet points, the Singaporean statement makes a vague reference to the overall right to personal privacy as a fundamental pillar of democracy and then alludes to the national Personal Data Protection Act adopted in 2012. Everyone has the right to the law’s protection against [digital] interference or attacks, says the resolution. The procedure of detecting a breach in the use of stored personal data, especially by special state agencies (authorized or not), on the international level (be it Criminal court or national legislatures) remains unclear and arduous. A vivid example of this is the Snowden case or the NSA wiretapping internationally states (the notoriously famous incident in which Angela Merkel’s phone was tapped).

A great deal depends on the level of democracy in any given country. What will be perceived as a gross trespassing of the right to privacy in the United States or Western Europe is not necessarily the case in Asian countries, and this is especially true in Singapore.

Singapore — a case of spy envy

In 2004 Singapore’s public authorities created a what some call one of the greatest intelligence units of today — a state system called Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS). The official aim of this rather complicated system is to locate various types of potential security threats (e.g. pandemic diseases) to prevent them from becoming state-wide (which is crucial). The trigger for creating such an intricate mechanism was the life-threatening outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (known as SARS). RAHS mechanisms comprise multi-stage tapping and scanning methods, which are nationwide, connecting all national databases and thus creating one strong thread between them. This amounts to an espionage-gadget Washington would love to have, but which the White House still cannot create due to the inevitable public backlash it would generate. Unlike the Americans, who are quite sensitive about their personal space and privacy, Singaporeans do not mind being tapped, spied on or scanned to ensure public order and stability. Some believe that this is the perfect incorporation of the centuries old social contract between government and citizens.

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As a system, RAHS has access to the numerous social networks and webpages that exist, and it can even monitor personal calls and purchases (which is made possible in Singapore by the fact that when a person buys a SIM card for a phone he/she needs to register it to their passport). Due to its geographical situation and regional particularities Singapore is prone to ecological calamities, health catastrophes (brought from outside the country, since Singapore is internationally recognized to be the cleanest city in Asia) and terrorist attacks. RAHS was created to map various scenarios of future unknowns that may or may not endanger national welfare. Policymakers and public workers need to be prepared for these wild card scenarios to avoid nation-wide crises. Every two years, RAHS holds an internationally attended symposium on risk assessment and horizon scanning. The last one in 2013 made a special point of the importance of overall preparedness for these unknown unknowns based on rapidly unfolding technological progress, social media exposure, network analysis and cultural shifts. What makes RAHS unique is that the mechanism is not solely focused on data collection, but is intricately injected into many spheres of life: from urban public housing (which is extremely widespread in Singapore) to medical care, and developing geospatial data centers. Somewhere between these two extremes, social media is thoroughly scanned in order to grasp the public’s general mood and prevent it from taking an undesirable turn. In July 2015 participants in the 6th RAHS Symposium discussed the way forward, stressing the “anticipation” track in every domain of national security.

Notably, RAHS fits perfectly into Singapore’s vague and adaptable legal framework. The Personal Data Protection Act merely prohibits companies from misusing personal and big data without public authorization. There is no mention of government. The omnipresent governmental structure has penetrated every sphere of life in this quaint city. Recently Singaporeans have seen policemen start wearing on-body cameras which are aimed at collecting information on suspects. The data is supposed to be deleted within 31 days. This fits perfectly into the general legal breach that Singapore has in the domain of international human rights standards. Singapore has a perfectly clean track record in transparency and information removal reports (as recent Twitter stats show). However, the country scores relatively high on governmental information requests to go through personal users’ accounts. This figure has been steadily rising for the last five years, which amounts for the general perception of Singapore as a surveillance state.

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The creation of RAHS sparked interest among U.S. policymakers. Back in the early 2000s the Americans were so inspired by the unique Singaporean experience that they tried to copy the model. The mechanism was named Total Information Awareness and supervised by the NSA with a view toward establishing a full-fledged intelligence weapon targeted againse terrorists. The test run included collecting personal data all across the U.S.. The experience failed when Snowden made the NSA’s plans public. Thus the American version of RAHS never saw daylight.

Security vs privacy — unsolvable riddle

Even though many Asian countries have questionable records regarding human rights, Singapore can defend its abuse of the individual right to privacy by showing great achievements on almost every statistical datasheet related to economic and social well-being in the country. According to PWC’s economic crime report, Singapore is becoming a leader in terms of economic security not only in Asian region but also globally.

When assessing RAHS’s operation throughout the decade of its existence, statistically nothing has changed much in the city-state. Police reports have shown that crime is more or less at the same low level, though a slight rise is evident (according to the latest police report, commercial crimes are to blame). That said, it is possible to agree that RAHS was created rather as a preventive mechanism and not as a responsive one. In case of a looming emergency, be it heterogenic, epidemic or terrorist, Singapore’s public authorities will set the screening system in full swing. At the expense of the individual right to privacy, Singapore shows exceedingly good results in maintaining social and economic well being of its citizens who are accustomed to potentially being watched. The city has even scored top place among expats thanks to the high quality of life, amenities and everyday social conditions, not to mention global perception. However, Singapore is a very unique case study, which shows excellent results thanks to historic, geographical, cultural and social particularities of the its development. Nonetheless, national governments worldwide need to find new solutions and bring existing methods of providing security on a new level without encroaching upon individual privacy too much. Perhaps the Singaporean model of securing social welfare and safety could serve as an inspiration, but the line between public and private is very delicate and public authorities need to learn to respect it.


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The future of surveillance is a promising one. In the wake of terrorist attacks around the world, a huge influx of unwelcome migrants, and intensifying proxy wars between states, governments are prone to become increasingly paranoid about keeping their borders and legitimacy secure. This is not news, but the methods applied are becoming very complex and intricate. Modern surveillance is one of them. One of the most telling examples is the USA Patriot Act which gives carte blanche to the American authorities to wire-tap citizens, extract and retain data for as long as they deem necessary. Countries like Russia and China have huge networks of special forces who have unlimited and unrestricted access to personal data. Europe has long been embroiled in an arduous debate on how to balance the conflicting needs of surveillance and respect for individual privacy while fighting terrorist threat, and has yet to reach any solid consensus. Surveillance is no doubt a gross violation of the right to privacy, but it is all but impossible to picture our life in any other way in the future. Giving up on privacy costs us dearly and, though most of us living in big cities do not necessarily pay attention to this issue, we tacitly go along with the fact that government is watching us.

Such tendencies may change the nature of individual privacy for good, and the current discourse on security vs privacy may no longer be about diminishing privacy but only about security. Though ideally privacy cannot survive without security and visa versa, so it is a matter of whether public authorities can balance the provision of security with respect for citizens’ right to privacy.

There is not much hope that, in years to come, public surveillance will be limited. The question is — how can we prevent it from openly invading our privacy? Even though in the coming decade we can expect that people (especially online users) will become aggressively paranoid about securing their personal data, surprisingly, while changing their passwords three times a week, they will slowly become accustomed to the thought that their personal life might be non-existent online. And in conclusion, the best advice for now and the future is this: if you want to keep something private, keep it offline and certainly keep it away from your social network account. 


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