Buzz over delinking govt PCs from Web

DR YAACOB IBRAHIM
DR YAACOB IBRAHIM

Other countries have expressed interest in Singapore's novel move and may follow suit

Probably the first country to do so, Singapore's decision to delink its government computers from the Internet could spur other nations to take a similar step.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday that since The Straits Times reported last week that 100,000 government computers will no longer have direct access to the Web from next May, other countries have expressed interest.

"You'll be very surprised at the kind of responses I received from my counterparts. They want to know how we do it," he said. "In fact, I was seated at a dinner and one of the ambassadors said 'We were surprised that you decided to do it and we want to learn from you because we think this should be done'."

 

Dr Yaacob added, in response to a question from The Sunday Times: "To the best of my knowledge, given the extensiveness with which we are doing this, I think we are the first."

He was speaking on the sidelines of a dialogue he had with members of the Malay/Muslim community on SkillsFuture at Tanjong Katong Complex.

NATIONAL INTERESTS AT STAKE

As the custodian of data concerning our citizens and because of national interests, we have to make sure that we can protect that, right? We are constantly under attack... and the hackers are becoming more sophisticated. ''

DR YAACOB IBRAHIM

The move, reported last Wednesday, is meant to keep government e-mail systems and shared documents safe. Civil servants will still have access to the Internet, but on separate computers dedicated to that purpose or on their personal mobile devices. But teachers will be exempt, as schools deal with less sensitive information and also use the Internet for teaching and learning.

Stressing that the Government had thought long and hard about this option, Dr Yaacob said that such a step, while inconvenient, was the best way to reduce the risk of government data being compromised, especially given the number and increasing sophistication of cyber attacks.

"At the end of the day, as the custodian of data concerning our citizens and because of national interests, we have to make sure that we can protect that, right?" said Dr Yaacob. "We are constantly under attack...and the hackers are becoming more sophisticated."

Singapore's Cyber Security Agency chief executive David Koh had revealed that there were 16 attacks on government networks which made it past firewall systems provided by vendors in the past year.

A firewall is typically the first line of defence for most government and corporate systems, acting like the front gate at the porch of a building. But Mr Koh said that a firewall can filter, at best, half of all malware. This is because the tool works well only on known malware, and is ineffective against new ones.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was the first to volunteer not to have any direct Web access on his work computer.

Dr Yaacob has also voluntarily started using two separate systems - one for e-mail and the other for Internet browsing - since this month.

The Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) have also separated Web access from work terminals. MTI started doing so in 2010.

"I don't think they (MTI) have suffered any productivity losses, so I think it can be done. It's a matter of changing our work habits and I think that's not difficult to do," he said.

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore will be working with government agencies to conduct focus-group discussions and workshops to discuss the implementation of the policy.

•Additional reporting by Irene Tham

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Buzz over delinking govt PCs from Web'. Print Edition | Subscribe