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‘Efficiency’ and Basic Rights

Rest of the World has published a terrific piece on the state of surveillance in Singapore, where governmental efficiency drives technologies that are increasingly placing citizens and residents under excessive and untoward kinds of surveillance. The whole piece is worth reading, but I was particularly caught by a comment made by the deputy chief executive of the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore:

“In the U.S., there’s a very strong sense of building technology to hold the government accountable,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive … but I just didn’t think that was necessary in Singapore.

Better.sg, which has around 1,000 members, works in areas where the government can’t or won’t, Keerthi said. “We don’t talk about who’s responsible for the problem. We don’t talk about who is responsible for solving the problem. We just talk about: Can we pivot this whole situation? Can we flip it around? Can we fundamentally shift human behaviour to be better?” he said. 

… one app that had been under development was a ‘catch-a-predator’ chatbot, which parents would install on their childrens’ [sic] phones to monitor conversations. The concept of the software was to goad potential groomers into incriminating themselves, and report their activity to the police. 

“The government’s not going to build this. … It is hostile, it is almost borderline entrapment,” Keerthi said, matter-of-factly. “Are we solving a real social problem? Yeah. Are parents really thrilled about it? Yeah.”

It’s almost breathtaking to see a government official admit they want to develop tools that the government, itself, couldn’t create for legal reasons but that he hopes will be attractive to citizens and residents. While I’m clearly not condoning the social problem that he is seeking to solve, the solution to such problems should be within the four corners of law as opposed to outside of them. When government officials deliberately move outside of the legal strictures binding them they demonstrate a dismissal of basic rights and due process with regards to criminal matters.

While such efforts might be ‘efficient’ and normal within Singapore they cannot be said to conform with basic rights nor, ultimately, with a political structure that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of its population. Western politicians and policy wonks routinely, and wistfully, talk about how they wish they were as free to undertake policy experiments and deployments as their colleagues in Asia. Hopefully more of them will read pieces like this one to understand that the efficiencies they are so fond of would almost certainly herald the end of the very democratic systems they operate within and are meant to protect.

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