The World Wide Web is perhaps the singular biggest game changer in the 20th century. From online shopping to bill paying, banking and as a source for breaking news, the internet has permeated every aspect of modern-day living.
While the Internet has had revolutionary positive effects on our lives – from a sheer convenience and efficiency standpoint to overturning despotic governments as in the Arab Spring and giving the otherwise under trodden a voice, we must also recognise that the proliferation of the online sphere has also got some very negative implications.
As can be seen from how the riots in London in 2011 gained momentum through the use of social media outlets such as Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, one cannot underestimate the power of the Internet as both a force for good and evil.
It is therefore not surprising that governments the world over (including Singapore’s) are clamouring to harness and control the power of this seemingly limitless forum.
Singapore seems to have taken a two pronged approach – the Internet charm offensive and the Internet limitation method. Key politicians starting up Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs are examples of the former while the new MDA regulations on online content, warning letters to blogger Alex Au are instances of the latter.
With the government’s rigorous interest in online development and activities, I would now like to draw attention to an area that seems to have for some reason or other been overlooked by the powers be – Data Protection.
It would seem that for about 1.2 Singapore cents, data of Singaporeans such as names, home and email addresses, mobile numbers and shopping history can be bought. Questions on how this data is obtained are not asked nor are there laws in place to control the flow of such information.
As far as I am concerned, this is as dangerous or even more dangerous than the possibility of inaccurate news being reported online. Online information works just like online shopping. Many products are listed online. Does this mean that we buy everything? The answer is of course an unequivocal NO. We compare the various products, do research and exercise a choice over what we want to buy.
In the same way, we will vet online content for accuracy. Just because something is online does not mean that we will automatically believe it. There have, of course, been hiccups in the process but these are just mere teething problems. Once Singaporeans get more savvy, there will naturally be self-imposed caution on what to believe in the same way we exercise control over what we buy (shopaholics excluded).
Why then an urgent need to limit internet information without a similar rush to protect our data? If the flow of information on the Internet is a problem, isn’t the flow of data also a worry?
Data being traded without regulation is first and foremost an annoyance. Why should an Internet user be subjected to spam on products he or she doesn’t need or want? Just because you sign up for a website selling handbags doesn’t mean you are interested in biking gear.
Secondly why should a given business be given a free pass to use my details for its private gain without my knowledge or without me making any corresponding gains in the process? It is my data – if I want to give it, I will. It is not for sale.
Thirdly, how can a third party trader sell information that doesn’t belong to him for profit? If your neighbour gives you his wifi password for use when you are at his house does not mean that you can pass his password to your whole family to use for free when you are at your own house just because you happen to be in the same catchment area. It is not yours to give or use! It is for the same reason that Singapore bans private satellite dishes.
Lastly and most worryingly, unregulated flow of private data can lead to a whole hosts of cybercrimes such as identity theft and misused credit cards. It can even lead to unwitting terrorist funding and money laundering.
Countries such as the UK have introduced laws to curb this unpleasant phenomenon. Legislation such as the Data Protection Act imposes regulations on how data can be obtained and processed, limits how data can be passed on and provides penalties for misuse.
To note, Singapore has begin its efforts in protecting the data of citizens. The Do Not Call Registry, rolled out at the turn of last year, was a teething attept to limit unsolicited text messages on mobile devices. Originally touted as a positive move, it soon became the source of criticism when changes were made at the last minute to allow vaguely defined “ongoing relationships” between consumers and companies to continue. Not surprisingly, the Personal Data Protection Commission received about 1,500 complaints in just the first month or so this year.
And we are only talking about mobile phone numbers, not yet emails and other forms of personal data used in communication.
Clearly, there is a lot more that Singapore can do to curb this issue. It has proven that it can act fast to slap controls on the spread of Internet information that can affect the government. Why not act with the same efficiency to protect Singaporeans from this stealthy and disturbing occurrence?