SINGAPORE: Singapore will have a new dedicated science and technology agency, which is to be a “force multiplier” for the Home Team and is expected to be formed by December this year.

This was after the Home Team Science and Technology Agency Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 6).

READ: MHA tables Bill for setting up of Home Team Science and Technology Agency

Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo reiterated in her speech during the second reading of the Bill that the ministry’s challenges are mounting and threats are evolving. 

Tech advancements have also brought about new issues, said Mrs Teo, who cited the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), saying the cost of cybercrime globally may be as much as US$600 billion annually.

The greater use of science and tech is key to meeting the new challenges, she said, adding the new Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) will play a “central role” in ensuring the investment achieves maximum impact.

“HTX will build cutting-edge and transformative capabilities that will augment the Home Team far beyond our 27,000 regular and 54,000 NS and volunteer officers,” she said.

One example is the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s (ICA) New Clearance Concept.

Mrs Teo said: “We have been used to large teams of officers manning rows of physical counters and clear travellers manually. That will be a thing of the past.

“The NCC imagines ‘breeze-through’ clearance for citizens, who can walk through immigration channels without even taking out their passports. Foreign visitors can perform self-clearance at automated immigration gates,” she added.

To do so, the system needs to incorporate different domains of tech such as biometric solutions that will accurately capture a person’s biometric information, smart sensors like cameras, and data science and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to analyse information integrated from various sources like the electronic arrival card, the minister said.

READ: Killing bugs and sorting cucumbers – How artificial intelligence is already changing the way we live our lives

Data analytics can also be used to help with emergency calls. Mrs Teo said with almost 200,000 emergency calls received each year, an AI system that can help recognise speech and transcribe and log such calls will “significantly reduce the time needed” to process these.

HTX will also support the development of a Home Team Operations Centre, which brings together all operation centres across the Home Team under one roof, she added.

READ: Home Team’s new science and tech agency to focus on robots, surveillance capability, says Josephine Teo

Mrs Teo said the aim is to set up HTX by December this year, and it will be a statutory board under MHA. It will bring together about 1,300 officers from the various Home Team departments as a start. The agency will also recruit scientists and engineers for new positions, though she didn’t reveal the number.  

She added the HTX will be situated within the current MHA premises.

MPS RAISE DATA PRIVACY, REDUNDANCY ISSUES

The new agency’s need for and use of large amounts of data was flagged as an area of concern by several Members of Parliament (MPs).

Mr Louis Ng, for one, pointed out that Mrs Teo said the new agency will make intensive use of video analytics and surveillance for crime deterrence and incident response. He said that even as Singaporeans feel physically safe in the country, they have also become “uneasy” at the risks involved with giving away their data.

“A spate of data leakage from the Government has exacerbated such fears,” Mr Ng added.

READ: PM Lee convenes committee to review data security practices in public service

As such, he recommended that the Ministry of Home Affairs publish annual reports on its data security measures to enhance public trust on this issue. He also asked if the ministry will set up a hotline for employees to whistleblow on lax data security measures.

This concern was similarly raised by MPs Rahayu Mahzam and Jessica Tan.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong said that while there may be a predominant mindset that Singaporeans are not that concerned with privacy, the fact the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) saw more than 1,600 complaints on data protection issues in 2018 showed that privacy is valued in Singapore.

She also suggested that the Government consider setting up an independent oversight body that will evaluate whether personal data, collected through forms or surveillance, has been legally and properly collected and managed by public officers.

This is on top of the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee’s work to submit its findings and recommendations to strengthen the civil service’s data security regime, she added.

“Convenience cannot be the sole consideration of data collection – citizens deserve to know the purpose and how their data is being used,” Ms Ong said. “Therefore, if we want to create a culture of respect for privacy, the way the government handles individuals’ data must set the example.”

Labour MP Patrick Tay also questioned the need for the HTX as he saw similar capabilities in agencies like DSTA, Ministry of Defence, Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), Health Sciences Authority, DSO and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

“Whether system engineers, specialists in marine and maritime engineering, tech or logistics specialists or even specialist forensic investigation, these experts are already serving in these agencies safeguarding Singapore,” Mr Tay pointed out.

“Shouldn’t we strengthen those existing agencies instead of having to set up another dedicated agency?”

ENOUGH SCALE TO MERIT NEW AGENCY

In response to Mr Tay’s question, Mrs Teo said the HTX will be involved in building unique capabilities that other agencies like DSO, DSTA or GovTech may consider “ancillary”.

For example, she said HTX scientists will conduct leading-edge research into the forensic analysis of suspected drug compounds. Advances in DNA forensics will boost police’s capability to generate leads for criminal investigation, she explained.

The minister also pointed out that the detection and handling of chemical, biological or radiological materials is an important area for HTX, in response to a question by MP Chia Shi-Lu.

She said HTX will work with SCDF and related agencies such as the National Environment Agency to develop sensor systems to detect such materials and the capability to effectively respond to incidents involving hazardous materials.

“These unique capabilities demonstrate why MHA is setting up HTX instead of leveraging on other existing agencies like DSTA, DSO or GovTech,” Mrs Teo said, adding the different operating environment and requirements mean some solutions may need to be customised or built organically for the Home Team.

HTX OFFICERS WILL NOT COLLECT PERSONAL DATA

She also addressed the data privacy concerns raised by MPs, saying the collection of data will continue to be done by the respective Home Team departments such as ICA and police.

HTX officers will unlikely collect any type of personal data in the course of their duties, she explained.

Mrs Teo, however, said HTX will safeguard the Home Team’s IT systems and the data they hold. This will be done by running the MHA Security Operations Centre, which will operate 24/7, to monitor system behaviour and detect possible intrusions into the ministry’ network.

She stressed that MHA has strict protocols in place to ensure that only officers with proper authorisation can access the personal data collected.

As for the suggestions made by MPs, she said these will be raised when the Public Sector Data Security Review Committee meets before it is scheduled to submit its recommendations this end-November.

“MHA takes its responsibility as a custodian of the data it collects very seriously and will continue to pay careful attention to this. We will also work closely with GovTech and the Cyber Security Agency to ensure a whole-of-government approach to data and cybersecurity,” Mrs Teo said.

She added: “We must also, at the same time as being cautious, not become paralysed by fear. If we do not try to use data responsibly and securely for good purposes, then we will also never learn, and that will be a missed opportunity.”