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.