Singapore Plans Legislation to Secure Data Collected by Firms

  • City’s digital development brings exposure to cyber attacks
  • New law would focus on private companies, not internet users

Vivian Balakrishnan.

Photographer: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Singapore will introduce legislation to protect sensitive data used by mobile app developers and other companies as the city-state intensifies its push to become one of the world’s leading technology hubs.

Vivian Balakrishnan, minister-in-charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation program, said in an interview that the Cybersecurity Act was being prepared by the Communications and Information Ministry and was expected to be introduced to parliament next year. The legislation would ensure that the data companies collect was safe from hackers Balakrishnan said Tuesday.

“The more digital technologies become embedded into the fabric of real life, you’ve got to take the necessary precautions,” he said. "A significant part of the legislation really is to just make sure providers of essential services at least take basic precautions to protect the data, protect the privacy and do not abuse the access to the information."

QuickTake Cybersecurity

Singapore’s high rate of internet usage and reliance on online data-processing helped propel Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s creation of the Smart Nation initiative in 2014, but also exposed it to greater cybersecurity risks. The government announced last month that from May next year public servants would no longer be able to access the internet from their work computers in the face of growing hacker threats. The move would affect around 100,000 public servants’ computers.

Security Risks

Prateek Panda, co-founder of local mobile security startup Appknox, said that because most companies involved in developing Smart Nation technology needed access to sensitive government data and networks, the door was open to multiple security risks.

Local developer BuUuk, for example, has launched an app called “WeatherLah” that combines data from Singapore’s national water and environment agencies to warn users of floods from overflowing drains or heavy rain. Other Smart Nation initiatives being trialed with include a hands-free fare system that lets people use their phones to pay for taxis and public transport, and robots that help senior citizens complete daily exercise routines, lift objects and even move furniture around.

Coming soon: a plan to trial self-driving buses which operate on fixed routes during peak hours, and the deployment of self-driving utility vehicles for services such as waste collection and street sweeping.

“A lot of data like social security numbers, credit card numbers et cetera are being traded openly in the dark web markets for as low as $10 per record,” said Panda in an email. “Imagine a whole nation’s data available like this for the entire world to exploit?"

Held Accountable

Balakrishnan said companies that increasingly use anonymized data gathered from millions of mobile phone-carrying commuters crisscrossing Singapore each day, must protect users’ information. “If a company has not bothered or has willfully left back doors open, they will have to be held accountable for that,” he said.

Singapore has recently been the target of several cyberattacks. Last year, a local hacker was sentenced to 56 months in jail for crimes including stealing confidential bank data and defacing government websites.

“We are beefing up security because we are such an open and connected government and government services, so we have to take the security of our systems seriously," Balakrishnan said. "In Singapore, the online sphere is essential for citizens. So much of our lives, our engagements, our interactions and our transactions are online.”