Singapore losing sight of privacy in next-gen tech ambitions

Singapore government confirms plans to develop a "next-generation" satellite-based road system to enable distance-based pricing for motorists, but mentions nothing about what it would do to address privacy concerns.

Over the past few years, I had hoped against hope and if I weren't an atheist, would have said a nightly prayer, that my government would scrap its plans to turn this island's transport infrastructure into a GPS-enabled tracking network.

But, alas, it is not to be. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) this week called for a tender to develop Singapore's "next-generation electronic road pricing (ERP) system...based on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technology".

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Introduced in 1998, the current ERP system uses a culmination of smart card and RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. The entire network comprises gantries located along highways and roads that are frequently congested during peak hours, as well as in-vehicle units (IUs) that are affixed on every vehicle including motorbikes. Smart cards containing stored cash value -- also dubbed CashCards -- are inserted into the IUs, and funds are deducted each time a vehicle passes under an ERP gantry that's in operation.

LTA said the new infrastructure would eliminate the need to build physical ERP gantries, which are "costly" and "take up land space". It also would be impractical to expand the existing system as it is nearing 20 years old and would become increasingly expensive and tedious to maintain, the transport authority said.

It noted that a GNSS-based system would enable distance-based pricing along congested roads where tolls are implemented, providing a "more equitable" option than the current gantry-based network as motorists could then be charged based on the distance travelled.

"Motorists can also look forward to an interactive and intelligent on-board unit (OBU) in their vehicle that can support a range of value-added services," LTA said in its statement. "These include real-time traffic information tailored to their location, as well as electronic payment for parking fees without today's paper coupons. Off-peak car users can look forward to new policies we are considering, which may allow them to pay only for using their vehicles for short periods rather than the whole day, or for using them only on uncongested roads."

Three consortia have been shortlisted to submit their bids for the tender: MHI Engine System Asia and NCS, a systems integrator that is a wholly-owned subsidiary under SingTel; ST Electronics; and Watchdata Technologies and Beijing Watchdata System.

A contract is expected to be awarded in the second half of 2015 for the design and development of the GNSS system, with implementation slated to start in 2020. LTA said the decision for the tender came after an 18-month evaluation that concluded in December 2012.

Singapore's ERP system
Physical ERP gantries will soon make way for satellite-based road pricing.

However, it made no mention of privacy issues or any other concerns and challenges that might have emerged during its evaluation period. And it's not like these issues haven't come up in the past.

When the idea of a satellite-based ERP system was mooted, there were worries about surveillance and potential breach of privacy. In a statement posted online in December 2013, opposition party Singapore Political Party expressed concern the satellite system will be used to track vehicles for "unwarranted surveillance".

A search on Twitter also indicates general disconcert over this week's announcement and its implication on privacy. Twitter user "@cantabip" said: "LTA calls tender for 'next-generation' road pricing scheme using GPS in every car. What steps are being taken to protect our privacy?" Another user "@kelkel5313" said: "How do LTA and the government justify that our privacy [and] data are being protected? This idea should be scrapped."

What about personal privacy?

Whether LTA's "next-generation" distance-based pricing scheme will indeed be effective in managing Singapore's traffic congestion isn't the issue here. Rather, my main concern here is the apparent lack of address on how personal privacy and data will be safeguarded.

It would have helped, even if it was only a single sentence, if LTA had included in its statement to reassure the public it was aware of such concerns and acknowledged the importance of data privacy. At the very least, this would indicate the transport regulator was sensitive to the issue and this would be taken into consideration during the design of its "next-generation", "value-add" road pricing system.

I'm increasingly perplexed by such oversight in the government's pursuit of its "next-gen" ICT ambitions. A big one among this is its goal to become "the world's first smart nation" , which comprises plans to deploy thousands of data sensors across the island so relevant insights can be provided to enable citizens to make more appropriate decisions -- for instance, in transport and healthcare -- as well as businesses to improve their operations.

However, there are still many unanswered questions about how the vast volume of data that could potentially be collected and analyzed will be managed since it cuts across government agencies and private entities . The government has admitted it doesn't have all the answers yet, but I would like to believe it is really committing the necessary efforts to actually look for some answers.

In a November 2011 interview with ZDNet , LTA's group director for innovation and ICT Rosina Howe-Teo had explained that a satellite-based system will allow motorists to receive information from LTA about traffic conditions ahead of time. So it's "not a one-way system" where it is only being used to support the road pricing system, there will be actual value-add services for motorists.

It will also be a value-add based on data collected about each and every vehicle on the road. No doubt this new system will eventually be included in Singapore's grand smart nation plan, and that means loads and loads of data will be collected and analyzed about where we're driving to, and where we last left our cars.

It is no longer enough to say the data will be anonymized because without knowing the location of my vehicle -- aka my whereabouts -- LTA will not be able to identify the distance I've driven and charge me accordingly. So when someone tells me the data will be anonymous or anonymized, I want to know exactly what that means.

The Singapore government needs to start taking a more serious view on public concerns about data privacy and security, or risk appearing like it is willing to overlook such issues -- even if this isn't so -- for the sake of adopting what it views to be leading-edge technology.

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