Singapore’s Precarious Surveillance State The Envy Of US Intelligence Agencies

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Total Information Awareness (TIA) is quite probably the world’s largest surveillance program, created by the US Information Awareness Office. TIA gathered up electronic records – emails, phone logs, internet searches, airline reservations, hotel bookings, credit card transactions, medical reports – looking for  “pre-crime” indicators, much as in the movie, Minority Report. TIA operated from February – May, 2003, when public outrage forced Congress to defund the program. Most Americans are unaware that in late 2003 it was renamed Terrorism Information Awareness, and a group of U.S. lawmakers arranged for the TIA to be broken into several discrete programs, all of which were given new, classified code names and placed under the supervision of the National Security Agency (NSA).

TIA OverviewIf 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.

What goes unmentioned is just how easy it is to become an “opponent” of the Singaporean state. It can take nothing more than appearing less than grateful for the many government programs offered in “exchange” for diminished civil liberties. While the government goes above and beyond to take care of its citizens’ needs, it acts swiftly to punish or publicly shame those who are seen to spurn its advances, so to speak. Not for nothing did sci-fi writer William Gibson calls this Singapore “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”

So, to make the perfect police/security state, you need a small country and a mixture of government largesse and palpable threats. You need a nation so precariously balanced that it “shouldn’t [even] exist,” according to one top-ranking government official. You also need a nation not built on civil liberties. Despite this, US intelligence agencies still view Singapore as a prime example of what could have been.

[M]any current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way. After Poindexter left DARPA in 2003, he became a consultant to RAHS, and many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs — housing, education, security — in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of “order” is all-encompassing.

If this was what the NSA and others were pushing for, there’s no hope of achieving it. The Snowden leaks have undermined a lot of these agencies’ stealthy nudges in this direction. The US government can never hope to achieve the same level of deference, not even in the best of times. A melting pot that has folded in refugees from authoritarian nations — along with the country’s founding principles — have made many Americans predisposed against views of the government as an entity worthy of reverence. Widespread abuse of the public’s trust has further separated the government from any reverential thought.

This isn’t to say the desire to convert US citizens into nothing more than steady streams of data doesn’t exist. The NSA’s previous director often stated his desire to “collect it all.” In the hands of the government, useful things could be done with all of this data (like possibly heading off epidemics, etc.), but the more likely outcome would be collecting for collecting’s sake — which violates the civil liberties the country was built on — and the use of the information in abusive ways.

It may work for Singapore, an extremely controlled environment. But that doesn’t necessarily make it right. And it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of surveillance state utopia.