Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Singapore’s Big Brother In The Making

When I first heard about Singapore Technologies Electronics new facial recognition system that can be used at MRT fare gates to identify commuters and charge them in a post-paid manner thereafter, my first thought was that, oh wow, what a complicated solution to a simple problem. Someone must have a hidden agenda. There are far simpler ways to collect fares.

This face recognition fare collection system immediately reminds me about how the next generation Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system will use satellite technology to track cars. It will provide coverage anywhere island-wide. This makes it easy to designate toll roads anywhere, implement distance-based travel charging, charging for street-side parking, or just about anything you might do with your car.

More importantly, your car can be tracked, anytime, anywhere. While one might argue that cars might be shared and aren’t necessarily tied to a single individual, but realistically, such a system basically tracks you all the time, everywhere you go.

The issue here is about the loss of your individual privacy.

In 2014, the government assured that the new ERP system won’t be a threat to privacy, but this year, they said ERP will be used to counter terrorism threat. Of course that sounds like a legit use. But think about it, just two years ago, we were assured that ERP data will be aggregated and anonymised, and thus we presume that non-anonymised data is used purely for only the intended purpose of charging road users. So it turns out that passing data from one arm of the government to another is alright. What other data sharing might come about in the future? It’s not difficult to spin some story that whatever sharing they might want to do is beneficial to everyone.

In fact, on countering the terrorism threat, the Home Affairs Minister Minister K. Shanmugam had said that “we have to use all available resources”, and that this is only part of a multi-pronged approach, which will include increased intelligence sharing with foreign agencies. I hope that sharing doesn’t include sharing our data with foreign agencies.

Once you have the data, there is no stopping what you can do with it. What they want to say about protecting your privacy, what they want to do to protect your privacy, they can easily change it any time. Perhaps, they already have the fine print covered, giving the government flexibility to use any data as they see fit, and to share with any agency (private, foreign, or otherwise) to meet their goals.

Back in 2013, we heard about how the Singapore Police Force wanted a new patrol car that could automatically recognise number plates of moving and stationary vehicles. It makes it a lot more efficient and effective in identifying stolen vehicles or vehicles driven by wanted persons. It also means that the data could be stored and used for other purposes apart from the original intended purpose.

Now, I don’t know if the above plans materialised, but you know what, it has become quite unnecessary now with satellite-based vehicle tracking.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Ministry of Home Affairs had tabled a bill to collect iris images of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PR). One can certainly argue about the advantages of such a system. But I’m getting a little concerned if all these moves are beginning to establish a pattern. Are fingerprints becoming so ineffective, or inefficient, that iris scans are now needed? Or does the government simply want more biometric data about all of us?

Today, we have cameras everywhere. In public housing blocks, both the HDB themselves and the Singapore Police Force have cameras. The LTA, and again the Singapore Police Force, have cameras on the roads. There are cameras on all public buses and trains. There are cameras in food centres. The list goes on.

The government is collecting more data about you, and then more intensely watching things happen and unfold everywhere and all the time.

On the one hand, all these surveillance have some good. It can combat crime, it can counter terrorism. On the other hand, as it becomes too pervasive, are we subconsciously giving up our privacy?

Of course, had the government wanted to track us, they could already easily do so by demanding data from telcos. Just about everyone has a phone, and the telcos know where each and every phone is. We have already allowed ourselves to be tracked. It’s easy, however, to leave our phones behind if we ever wanted to be not tracked for whatever reasons.

There are no doubt numerous other ways we’ve given up our privacy. Sometimes we consciously do so, though some people might not think too much about it. We tell Google and Facebook a lot about ourselves. It’s a great place to go search for personal information. Do you think that your configured privacy preferences matter at all? In 2015 alone, the Singapore Government has made 412 requests to Facebook for data on 452 persons, most of which resulted in data that was handed over. Do you wonder if the data had already been in the hands of the government, how much would they dig into it to just casually find anything they want about you?

We know, through Edward Snowden leaks, that the Singapore Government has no qualms about monitoring foreign communication networks and sharing access with several other governments. SingTel was accused of facilitating a tap of the SEA-ME-WE-3 cable that runs from Japan, via Singapore, Djibouti, Suez and the Straits of Gibraltar to Northern Germany.

If they monitor foreign communication networks, it should not be surprising that networks inside Singapore are also tapped.

Singaporeans have not complained much. Perhaps some of us are resigned to the fate that the government will get to do whatever they want to do. But are we making it too easy for them to do that? There isn’t much public debate about these issues, and I think it is high time that Singaporeans be more vocal about protecting their privacy.

In the meanwhile, I don’t think the MRT has any problems with its fare gates currently. The current tickets could do with some upgrades, but I can’t imagine face-recognition systems being more cost-effective, reliable and efficient. What they need are more reliable trains. Someone’s trying to solve the wrong problem here.

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