By Andrew Loh -
How much are you willing to trust the Government with private information about yourself, or information which belongs to you?
It has been reported in recent weeks that the Singapore government had asked for – and obtained – private information of individuals from major technology companies, such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Google.
This revelation comes on the back of new Internet regulations introduced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) in June, to curb free speech and effect censorship online. The Government claimed that the regulations were not meant to stifle free speech but to bring rules on new media in line with traditional media.
The Minister for Communications and Information (MCI), Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, defended the new regulations and asked, basically, for the public to trust the government to be “judicious” in enforcing the regulations.
“I hope that the activists who are today making this far-fetched claim (of the Government clamping down on online criticisms) will be honest enough to admit it when the time comes,” he said.
Still, the latest incidents of the Singapore Government asking and being given access to the private information of individuals require a closer look.
The main broadsheet, the Straits Times, had an article on this on 19 September. Written by its “technology journalist and digital producer”, Derrick Ho, the piece was titled, “Fear Big Brother… or firms’ abuse of Big Data?”
Mr Ho wrote:
Ho then reported that Yahoo had said that it had revealed to the S’pore government “extracts of e-mail messages, contents of messenger chats and even entries in address books and calendars.”
When the Ministry of Home Affairs was asked about “the nature of the requests”, it apparently said little and gave nothing more than a standard reply.
Ho then mentions how Singapore Telecommunications (Singtel), a government-linked company, was reportedly “aiding a highly secretive intelligence unit of the Ministry of Defence and its Australian counterparts in harvesting communications…”
Both Mindef and Singtel declined to comment when asked about the matter, Ho said.
Ho then concluded that there was no such thing as data privacy in Singapore.
Ho then says, basically, that the Singapore Government has “wide access to data and communications such as SMSes, e-mail, call logs and websites you have accessed.”
“It does not need a court order as laws allow it to directly obtain such information from firms,” Ho writes.
He describes the Singapore Government as an “outlier in the wide powers it holds.”
Ho then did a rather strange thing - he defended all these.
He threw in a red herring, hoping that it will swim in the murky waters he wades into.
The Singapore Government doesn’t need a warrant? But “the same can be said of companies and even individuals,” Ho tries to convince.
[We’re not sure if an individual or a company can get a warrant, though.]
After laying out such a reality, which is rather scary indeed, Ho then says that there is really no need to be alarmed.
He says it is all about “the politics of trust”.
“For now… there is no evidence that the Singapore Government is collecting data for anything other than bona fide purposes.”
Ho quickly admits and recognises, however, that “citizens don’t know this for sure.”
But he is just as quick to add:
“Until proven otherwise, citizens can only rely on trust and the State’s goodwill.”
It is about the “politics of trust” and “the State’s goodwill”.
If that isn’t enough to convince or persuade you, Ho raises another red herring, and cites a Pew Research Centre study which “found that while the American public is concerned about Internet privacy, they are far less worried about government snooping than they are about their online activity being monitored by hackers and advertisers.”
Be like the Americans. They “are far less worried about government snooping…”
So you should too.
The message: worry more about private companies than Big Brother.
Sounding a lot like Dr Yaacob, Ho then concludes his piece:
And then, the punchline:
I am not saying that Ho is not right in raising concerns about what private companies and individuals (including criminals) can do with the data or information they collect about you.
But to write a piece which plays down the serious implications of one, and point the finger at the other, is quite misleading and, pardon me, irresponsible.
If the Government and companies have access to data and information of individuals without their knowing, then we should be equally concerned about both.
And instead of asking Singaporeans to simply “trust” the Government to only use such information for “bona fide” reasons, what Ho should do is to perhaps ask for more legal protection for Singaporeans and more accountability from the Government when it requests for such information.
When the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the government-linked Singtel all refuse to disclose more, or decline to comment or explain when asked about their dealings, for Ho to then ask the public to simply “trust” the government seems rather…. naive.
Indeed, Ho’s article fails to convince Singaporeans why they should trust the Government with their personal and private information.
The “politics of trust” and “the State’s goodwill” are not good enough.
In fact, depending on these is the surest way to lose whatever little right to privacy Singaporeans may presently have - especially when the Government is one which introduces legislations it can hardly defend or explain (like the MDA regulations), and also one which has a penchant for behaving in the same way it accuses others of doing, such as being anonymous online: