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Singapore Internet scan raises cyber-policing fears

Reuters. May 4, 1999.
  Net provider sorry for government-aided snooping 
                    Singapore secret police computer scan scare

AN Internet service provider's security scan of more than 200,000 subscribers' computers to check on vulnerability for break-ins has raised the spectre in wired Singapore that "Big Brother is watching."

SingNet, a unit of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (SingTel), halted the scans due to subscribers' complaints.

Ivan Tan, director of corporate communications for SingTel, told Reuters on Tuesday that a corporate apology had been issued for any anxiety caused and that the scan had been suspended indefinitely.

In Singapore's Internet community and local press, however, the scanning and subsequent mea culpa have not silenced critics. Tan Chong Kee, co-founder and editor of community website SInterCom, said privacy was a main issue for the public, but a desire for an explanation was another factor.

"I would like to see after the apology a full inquiry of what happened, in particular the involvement of the Ministry of Home Affairs."

SingTel said the ministry's Information Technology Security Unit was a consultant in the operation.

The ministry was approached because it was an expert in the area, but SingTel said the scan did not delve into users' databases and only explored whether open windows existed for hackers to exploit.

The scan produced some 900 cases of virus-infected computers and SingTel said owners would be notified.

But the idea that the measures were preventive rather then invasive has not been fully accepted by the Internet-friendly nation of 3.5 million.

The pro-government Straits Times newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday that carrying out the operation without advising subscribers beforehand was a grave oversight.

"Evidently, many feel passionately about their right to privacy and want to protect it jealously. They also demand transparency and accountability from those whose decisions and actions can affect their lives," the newspaper said.

SingNet has said the scans were in the public interest, and added it would call upon the National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) to certify that the excercises were not intrusive.

Wynthia Goh, another founder of SInterCom who now lives in New York, said the case should not be decided by the NIAC but rather by the courts.

"SingNet mentioned that it will get NIAC to confirm that the scan was 'not intrusive.' It is really appealing to the wrong body," Goh said in an Internet response to Reuters' questions.

"NIAC is an advisory body to the (Singapore Broadcasting Authority) and it neither has the authority nor the expertise to confirm the 'non-intrusivess."'

Singapore has tight Internet regulations restricting pornography, hate literature and criminal activities.

Singapore leaders have recognised the impact of the Internet.

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in October 1998 that technology was rapidly undermining whatever monopoly control of the media governments might have had.

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