Technology 'has raised extremist threat'

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Balance between personal expression, privacy and ability to act against danger vital: Vivian

The world needs to find a balance between freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and the ability of national security agencies to deter threats, as technology has amplified the threat of radicalism and extremism, said Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

Speaking to more than 70 security experts from over 25 countries, including Japan, Australia and the United States, at an international security conference yesterday, he said: "We actually all need to embark on deep policy reviews on very difficult topics. Topics like the right to privacy, the encryption of communications and the freedom of expression.

"What goes on in cyberspace has real impact on the real world, and the sooner we get to grips with these difficult policy issues the better, because we need to get the balance right."

His speech comes as the US government is engaged in a legal battle with Apple to force the high-tech giant to help crack a phone connected to a drug case in New York.

The Internet has helped terrorism to thrive, said Dr Balakrishnan, defining terrorism as the use of violence in pursuit of a political objective. Religion and ideology are used as a vehicle or lever to divide society and incite hatred.

The rise of global communications has made people acutely aware of their differences, and differences have traditionally given rise to the tendency towards violence, he said. Additionally, the Internet allows people to hear what they want to hear, which leads to a shallowing of discourse.

He said: "We now live in a world of fragmented echo chambers... a world in which there is a dearth of deep thought and cogent discussion across diverse perspectives. You get a more monochromatic world and a narrowing of minds."

Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda ISIS have mastered new media and, through such echo chambers, created "global tribes" which are geographically separated but share the same world view.

This in turn gives rise to lone wolf attacks by people not previously known to be risks by national security agencies. Singapore is not immune from this, he said, noting in April last year a 19-year-old self-radicalised Singaporean was detained under the Internal Security Act.

In response to these threats, he called on governments and national security agencies to urgently upgrade their infocommunications infrastructure. International collaboration is also critical, he said.

"We need to share information and we need to share intelligence between countries if we are to thwart these attacks or to deter would-be attacks."

He added: "It behoves us... to get to grips with this new technology, insist on being best in class, work effectively together and get the politicians and the people to have a serious discussion about getting the balance right, getting politics right in order to ultimately secure the safety and security of our societies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Technology 'has raised extremist threat''. Print Edition | Subscribe