Written by Fabian Terh
It seems that the term “internet privacy” means little to Singaporeans, a stark contrast from the widespread outrage expressed by Americans when Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents revealing the NSA’s pervasive surveillance programs. The U.S. has a long-standing tradition of civil liberties that are enshrined and guaranteed by its Constitution. For instance, I would be extremely surprised if you are unfamiliar with the following lines: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” The Miranda rights statement implicitly accords the privilege against self-incrimination. While this privilege does exist in Singapore, there are two crippling caveats: the trial judge may draw an adverse inference from your silence, and it is not legally required that the police inform you that you have such a right.
So perhaps it isn’t that surprising that Singaporeans appear generally unperturbed by revelations that Singapore was a key “third party” in providing intelligence (on Malaysia) to the “Five-Eyes” intelligence alliance. Although there was no direct evidence suggesting domestic spying in Singapore, the very fact that Singapore has the resources and capability to tap on international undersea telecommunication cables suggests strongly that domestic surveillance programs would be child’s play. After all, SingTel, Singapore’s largest telecommunications company, is majority-owned by Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singapore government. (SingTel was alleged to have facilitated access to the cable, thereby allowing the government to collect and provide intelligence on Malaysia.) Coupled with the relative lack of civil liberties, it is therefore highly plausible that the government is able to gain access to citizens’ private data without much checks and balances (such as a court order, as is the case in the U.S.), as claimed in this article. Another article quoted a senior Defense Ministry official who acknowledged that all home Internet traffic in Singapore is filtered and monitored. And apparently, it has happened before – in 1999, SingTel was found to have stealthily scanned its customers’ computers on the orders of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Yet, Singaporeans don’t care.
It is suggested that the underlying reason for this apathy lies in the implicit “social contract” between the people and the government. No legal documents have been signed, yet there exists a strong trust between society and its rulers. The populace trusts the government to be benign; it willingly gives up part of its civil liberties and individual freedoms in exchange for guarantees in more “bread-and-butter” issues like security, education, housing, and healthcare. This symbiotic relationship seems to have worked out pretty well; Singapore consistently emerges among the top ranks across a broad range of dimensions such as safety, education, and healthcare. And till date, there has not been any malevolent cases of abuse of power concerning surveillance and domestic spying (that I know of).
In the wake of the Snowden leaks, Americans collectively lambasted the surveillance programs that collected and stored personal information indiscriminately, prompting changes such as an uptake in encryption by numerous tech companies. For the first time in almost a decade, Americans are more concerned about the infringement on their civil liberties than a potential terrorist attack. In Singapore, however, Members-of-Parliament raised concerns over the lack of adequate surveillance to tackle crime.
While I greatly appreciate the security I enjoy, and have no doubt that it is entirely possible that extensive surveillance may have played a crucial part, I have qualms about embracing indiscriminate surveillance wholesale.
- I did mention that there has not been any malevolent cases of abuse of power concerning surveillance to date. It would be prudent to bear in mind, however, that a spotless history is not an accurate indicator of future performance. Circumstances are ever-changing – sociopolitical climates evolve, politicians retire and are succeeded, and mentalities change. Just 9 years ago, in 2005, the domestic Internet penetration rate was 61%; in 2013, it was 73%. Perhaps the reason Singapore does not have a program like NSA’s is that it does not have the prerequisites to justify the expenses. Or perhaps the benevolent leaders at the helm of the nation today will have been replaced by more nefarious characters with sinister agendas. Nobody knows.
- A very common argument defending surveillance programs goes along the lines of: “I have nothing to hide.” It is amazing how quickly this argument crumbles when one requests that these presumably upstanding citizens publish their personal emails and text messages, or publicly stream feeds from video cameras installed in their homes. The answer is almost guaranteed to be a “no”. But why is that? The reason is astoundingly simple: the premise that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear is fundamentally flawed. Everyone has something to hide, even if they’re perfectly legal and legitimate activities. A few examples off the top of my head include: online dating, job hunting, personal messaging, and watching of pornography (which is an extremely private activity yet perfectly lawful in many jurisdictions).
- As Mark Harrison puts it, “In a free society the purpose of surveillance should be to protect the way we live, including our privacy, our liberty, and our democracy; and to frustrate those that want to take these things away. But mass surveillance that infringes on privacy and liberty fails to play this role and consequently undermines the way we live”
Indeed, mass surveillance effectively strips away fundamental freedoms that are the cornerstones of modern democracies. Deprivation of privacy compels adherence to orthodoxies and squashes dissent. This is why most people feel uncomfortable performing a task or activity with watchful eyes trained on them. The very fact of being monitored and observed subjects one to the pressure of judgement; we are then compelled to adhere to norms, rendering us unable to exercise our freedoms. Online surveillance acts in a similar fashion – the surveilled practices self-censorship and avoids experimentation and creativity.
In 1928, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “The right to be left alone [is] the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”
There are countless other strong arguments decrying mass, indiscriminate surveillance, such as the establishment of a dangerous precedent and how history has proven that the “national security” defense touted by governments is tenuous. However, I shall not be delving into them; this is not the point of the article.
Ultimately, the crux of the problem lies not in surveillance – but the manner in which surveillance is conducted. Surveillance programs that affect virtually an entire population requires oversight, accountability, and checks and balances. As the age-old adage goes: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The topic of online privacy does not resonate much with Singaporeans presently, but it should. After all, as one of the most connected cities in the world, much – if not most – of our activities take place online. Singaporeans should demand transparency and stronger protections of their rights.
For a great read about the perils of surveillance, do check out: No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald.