The Social Laboratory

singapore surveillance state


Almost the whole world erupted into anger when Edward Snowden leaked NSA’s super-secret surveillance program in 2013, which gathers sensitive data of not only nearly the whole Americans’ daily communications, but also wiretaps upon numerous world leaders’ private conversations. Nonetheless, this ambitious, and pretty much dangerous, idea of supervising the entire world’s communication systems can be traced back a decade earlier, as one of many strategies devised to anticipate any possible terrorism attacks.

And it turns out that there’s already one country which extensively uses this system in all aspects of the society’s life: Singapore.

The city-state, populated by 5.4 million people, continuously keeps itself at a ‘siege mentality’, given its geographically infinitesimal size compared to the rest of the others. Given such existential perils, where everything, if unanticipated, may bring turmoil to this tiny nation, Singaporean government realizes it necessary to impose very strict controls on the whole populace. And so appears the idea of Total Information Awareness (TIA), an all-out cyber-security big-data mining campaign by which government agencies extensively monitor data flows in social media, and even use all their keywords and tags to produce sophisticated algorithm which can predict ‘all kinds of possible perilous scenarios threatening the country’s existence in near future’. Hundreds of people have been arrested arbitrarily for posting ‘sensitive’ information on the public, thanks to the campaign, imposed in all aspects of societal life.

When Americans feel they are increasingly ‘intimidated’ by their own government, Singaporeans instead, willingly or reluctantly, ‘welcome’ it (realizing their ‘tiny-red-dot’ position in this planet). Read the full article in Foreign Policy.




Because of such uproars, many 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.

Ten years after its founding, the RAHS program has evolved beyond anything Poindexter could have imagined. 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.

In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.

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