Singapore data-sharing raises privacy concerns

Hacking-prone Singapore has proposed technological reforms to allow consumers to switch between service providers without losing their data on sensitive information about loan repayments and purchase histories.

However, it remains to be seen how informed consumers are about the issues at stake before they rapidly accept a site’s terms and conditions when browsing.

Singapore’s Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran announced the proposed changes at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona during a discussion on how legislation on technology could boost business innovation and market competition.

The reforms could allow people to transfer data from a fitness app – including their height, weight, body mass index, heart rate and exercise routes – to a life insurance provider. Evidence of a healthy lifestyle, for example, might lower someone’s insurance premium.

An estimated 93 per cent of organisations in Singapore use data for critical and automated decision-making.

Increasingly those applying for a job or a bank loan are subject to murky algorithms that will provide an answer without explaining how the applicant can improve their chances next time.

Singapore’s data portability is under scrutiny amid an ongoing review of the Personal Data Protection Act, affecting banks, insurance companies, internet service providers (ISP) and retailers that collect personal data.

Portability requirements would allow someone to transfer their personal data to another ISP if they switch to a new package, saving time when inputting data while raising questions about privacy.

In today’s busy world, few consumers read the lengthy online contracts that need to be ticked before a service is used or a website is visited.

Even fewer fully understand the prolonged potential effects of sharing information about their personal lives with shadowy online firms.

Singaporean companies are using online information at a much greater pace, such as location data, to make key decisions on expansion, where to open branches and before signing major contracts.

While most of the world’s internet users are unaware of the ways in which their online data is exploited, the real problem is that our legislators are equally ignorant of the pitfalls of sharing too much about our lives online.

Political representatives around the world appear deeply unprepared for technological changes and how best to protect consumer privacy.

It has been argued in Singapore that increased access to personal data would allow firms to develop goods and services tailored to individual needs.

But in Singapore’s rush to embrace technological innovation, its own prime minister’s health information was leaked last year along with that of 1.5 million other residents.

Iswaran’s proposals this week follow announcements by the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) and the Competition and Consumer Commission Singapore on data portability during 2018.

“Singapore believes that there could be greater clarity on how data portability can be introduced in support of a smart nation and a digital economy,” the PDPC said this week.
“Data portability, whereby users are empowered to authorise the movement of their personal data across organisations, can boost data flows and support greater data sharing in a digital economy both within and across sectors,” the organisation said.

Under the relaxed rules, online shoppers could share their purchase and browsing data between retailers, giving businesses more knowledge of their shopping habits and preferences.

Firms are quickly learning more about how our brains work than we know ourselves.

Advertisers are purportedly identifying young people with homosexual preferences based on the time they linger on pictures of attractive people of the same gender. While a teenager might be in denial about their own sexual preferences, online retailers could already have confidently identified them as gay.

Singapore’s PDPC argued that the increased movement of data could potentially lower barriers to entry for new businesses and break up the grip of established firms.

Iswaran said in a statement: “Data is a key enabler of digital transformation, but a delicate balance must be struck between data protection and business innovation.
“We hope more can join us in this international discourse and work together to build a trusted global environment for business innovation,” he said.

Few would disagree that data is key to the contemporary economy, giving tech giants like Google and Facebook huge market power to influence consumers and political movements.
Our privacy is in constant danger of being eroded by firms that delve ever-deeper into our opinions and shopping habits to feed us more of what we already like, to keep us coming back to their sites.

While Singapore is a shining example of how technological progress can boost efficiency in the crowded city-state, it has also proved deeply vulnerable to hackers.
Singapore’s legislators need to ask whether they are forging a new, efficient state where technological innovation eases inconvenience or providing an example of eroded privacy that other states will try to avoid in the future.


The highly computerised Bukit Merah docks in Singapore. The Lion City relies heavily on technology. Picture credit: Wikimedia