You Want Security? They've Got Security

Imagine a country where the government gives every citizen a National Registration Identity Card (NRIC). This credit-card-size piece of pink plastic features your unique NRIC number, thumbprint, photograph, and a hologram. You use it almost every day of your life to apply for a job, go to the doctor, open a bank account, pay your utility bill, even book concert tickets online.

Officials won't say what they can learn about you running a search of your NRIC number. But the government is highly centralized, and all agencies operate on the same fiber-optic backbone. So that number leads ultimately to all of your other identifying information. When you borrow a library book, you use your NRIC. When you drive through a tollway, your NRIC is charged--and your location can be pinpointed at any time.

This is not a George Orwell novel. It's present-day Singapore--where your unique serial number is your life. The city-state's 3 million citizens all are assigned a serial number at birth, and from the age of 15 they need an NRIC, as do the 1 million permanent residents. The result is a dream come true for crime fighters. But it goes hand-in-glove with a culture of widespread surveillance. "The state knows everything about you, which is constitutionally objectionable to Americans," says Ooi Giok Ling, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, a government think tank.

AN ACCEPTED PARANOIA. Contemporary Singapore goes further than perhaps any other country to make its citizens feel safe. In what officials describe as a "hangover" from British colonial rule that ended in 1963, Singaporeans are not only numbered but also monitored. Video cameras are posted at intersections, playgrounds, subway stations, lobbies, and in the elevators of office and apartment buildings. The building I live in has only 27 apartments, yet it has at least four video cameras. The doorman keeps a Book of Occurrences in which he records the name and serial number of every visitor--or passport numbers if they're foreigners. He watches the monitors on his desk, following each visitor until they step into an apartment. When he stopped by our last New Year's Eve party, a British woman from the ninth floor asked him: "Do you keep track of our lovers?" The doorman giggled bashfully.

Singapore's surveillance culture engenders an accepted paranoia. Citizens, most of whom are Chinese Christians, assume that since their lives are encoded on the government's central database, someone could detect their location at any time--say, a hotel room--and reveal that to their employers or families. There's also a widespread, though largely unfounded, suspicion that every phone call is tapped, every e-mail monitored, and every public place bugged. Even in private, people lower their voices when broaching a sensitive topic.

To be sure, no one has ever proved that the government has mined the central database to single out anyone for criticizing the Establishment. Nevertheless, there appear to have been "isolated cases of breaches of confidentiality for political purposes," concludes Ooi, who is a former Ministry of Home Affairs analyst. Officials reject such allegations. "We treat a person's particulars as confidential information," says Lee Boon Huee, a government spokesman.

The two generations of Singaporeans who have grown up with serial numbers know of no other society, and by and large, they are not about to reject it. Although the city-state is in its most severe recession in 30 years, Singaporeans still enjoy a per capita income of nearly $30,000--vs. less than $1,000 in neighboring Indonesia. The meticulously planned and manicured community sets records for literacy, public health, access to public parks, and low crime rates.

Now, the art of surveillance is about to reach new heights. Agencies are developing a card with a chip encoded with personal information. Initially, it would help police update criminal records easily. But eventually, it would be able to perform financial functions, making it a credit card, cash card, and debit card all in one. "If you spill a drink on your card, you'll lose your national identity," says Michael Yap, former head of the now-defunct National Computer Board. "The simple issue of who pays for a replacement would be a headache." Alas, the limits of state intrusion into private life aren't political--they're technological and bureaucratic.

Corrections and Clarifications In "You want security? They've got security" about Singapore ("Privacy in an age of terror," Special Report, Nov. 5), the following two sentences did not appear because of a production error: "When you drive down a tollway, roadside sensors pinpoint the location of your car and charge tolls to an account that identifies you by your National Registration Identity Card (NRIC)." And: "Citizens, a mix of Chinese, Malays, and Indonesians, assume that since their lives are encoded on the government's central database, someone could detect their location at any given time."

By Michael Shari in Singapore

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.