The Surveillance State in Singapore

Singapore’s Precarious Surveillance State The Envy Of US Intelligence Agencies” is a disturbing article about the advancing surveillance state in Singapore. However, the source of this article is another article that appeared in Foreign Policy, an untrustworthy source of apologetics for the US statist consensus. In other words, Foreign Policy represents what Tom Woods frequently calls “approved opinion” that is shared by the inside the beltway crowd. As such, any articles from such a source should be read with caution.

However, the main point behind the article, that Singapore has built up a vast spying apparatus against its citizens, is not implausible given the nature of Singaporean society. It certainly warrants additional investigation if Singapore were to play a role in one’s plans to expatriate.

If you want to build a surveillance state with a minimum of backlash, you’ll need a very controllable environment. Shane Harris at Foreign Policy has a detailed report on Singapore’s relatively peaceful coexistence with Big Brother that includes the United States’ involvement in its creation, as well as the many reasons pervasive surveillance and an out-sized government presence have been accepted, rather than rebelled against.

The genesis of Singapore’s surveillance net dates back to 2002, and traces all the way back to former US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter. Peter Ho, Singapore’s Secretary of Defense, met with Poindexter and was introduced to the Dept. of Defense’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) aspirations.

It would gather up all manner of electronic records — emails, phone logs, Internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports — and then, based on predetermined scenarios of possible terrorist plots, look for the digital “signatures” or footprints that would-be attackers might have left in the data space. The idea was to spot the bad guys in the planning stages and to alert law enforcement and intelligence officials to intervene.

Though initially presented as an anti-terrorism tool (something Singapore was looking for after several recent terrorist attacks), it first found usefulness as a way to track and predict the spread of communicable diseases.

Ho returned home inspired that Singapore could put a TIA-like system to good use. Four months later he got his chance, when an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) swept through the country, killing 33, dramatically slowing the economy, and shaking the tiny island nation to its core. Using Poindexter’s design, the government soon established the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning program (RAHS, pronounced “roz”) inside a Defense Ministry agency responsible for preventing terrorist attacks and “nonconventional” strikes, such as those using chemical or biological weapons — an effort to see how Singapore could avoid or better manage “future shocks.”

Singapore politicians sold “big data” to citizens by playing up the role it would play in public safety. Meanwhile, back in the US, the program began to fall apart as privacy advocates and legislators expressed concerns about the amount of information being gathered. In Singapore, this was just the beginning of its surveillance state. In the US, it became an expansion of post-9/11 intelligence gathering. Rather than end the program, it was simply parted-out to the NSA and other agencies under new names by sympathetic lawmakers.

Singapore’s TIA program soon swelled to include nearly anything the government felt it could get away with gathering. The government used the data to do far more than track potential terrorists. It used the massive amount of data to examine — and plan for — nearly every aspect of Singaporean existence.

Across Singapore’s national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren — and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.

Making this data collection even easier is the Singaporean government’s demand that internet service can only be issued to citizens with government-issued IDs. SIM cards for phones can only be purchased with a valid passport. Thousands of cameras are installed and government law enforcement agencies actively prowl social media services to track (and punish) offensive material.

But this is accepted by Singapore citizens, for the most part. The mix of Indians, Chinese and Malays makes the government especially sensitive to racially-charged speech. The country’s dependence on everyone around it makes everyday life a bit more unpredictable than that enjoyed by its much larger neighbors. In exchange for its tightly-honed national security aims (along with housing and education), Singaporeans have given up their freedom to live an unsurveilled life. And for the doubters, the government has this familiar rationale to offer.

“In Singapore, people generally feel that if you’re not a criminal or an opponent of the government, you don’t have anything to worry about,” one senior government official told me.

The entire article can be read here.

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