Parliament: HTX - a new Home Team agency tasked to develop cutting-edge technology

The twin towers of the New Phoenix Park on Irrawaddy Road which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The new Home Team Science and Technology Agency, which is tasked with developing cutting-edge capabilities for security or life-saving operations, will be known as HTX in short, with "X" symbolising its role as a force multiplier.

The men and women in HTX will focus on such areas as surveillance, forensics, chemicals, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives threats, as well as robotics and unmanned systems.

"HTX will build cutting-edge and transformative capabilities that will augment the Home Team far beyond our 27,000 regular and 54,000 National Service and volunteer officers," said Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 6).

Targeted to be set up in December this year, HTX will group under one roof all the scientific and technological resources of its various departments, said Mrs Teo, when she presented the Home Team Science and Technology Agency Bill, passed on Tuesday, for debate.

The agency was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who as Finance Minister unveiled it in his Budget speech in February.

Mrs Teo said the agency will initially be staffed by about 1,300 science and technology officers from the different Home Team departments.

She also cited examples of how HTX will support the Home Team.

With emergency calls, for instance, artificial intelligence (AI) could help call dispatchers by transcribing and logging the calls.

"With almost 200,000 emergency calls each year, such technology will significantly reduce the time needed to process calls," she said.

HTX will also work with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) on its New Clearance Concept (NCC), which promises greater convenience for travellers without compromising security, said Mrs Teo.

She said the NCC, to be launched in 2022, will need to incorporate several different domains of technology, including the capturing of biometric information and the use of smart sensors, like cameras, to identify persons of interest.

Beyond systems and solutions, she said HTX will better enable Home Team departments to adopt a "One Home Team approach" in joint operations to respond to a terror incident, for example.

Mrs Teo said HTX will add to the whole-of-government approach in building up engineering expertise in the public service.

It will also be able to build new capabilities for other government agencies that have similar technological needs as the Home Team.

A total of eight MPs spoke on the Bill, raising concerns, such as the potential duplication of resources with other government research agencies like Government Technology Agency (GovTech), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) said experts in different fields already serve in these existing agencies, adding: "Shouldn't we strengthen those existing agencies instead of having to set up another dedicated agency?"

Responding, Mrs Teo said the mission, operating environment, and requirement of such agencies are different from those of the Home Team, and that there is enough scale within the Home Team to merit a dedicated agency.

"If we don't put (what is needed by the Home Team) as the focus of a dedicated agency, then you must run the risk that these are ancillary to other agencies.

"Then it will be a question mark whether you can build up sufficient capabilities in a short time to counter the challenges," she said.

Privacy concerns were also raised. Nominated MP Anthea Ong drew attention to the trade-off between security and the "potentially suffocating psychological effects of living under the gaze of the authority".

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said even as Singaporeans feel physically safe, they have also become uneasy about giving away their data, with the spate of leaks involving government agencies.

Mrs Teo said Home Team departments will continue to collect data in accordance with their statutory duties or to maintain their mission effectiveness.

This includes police officers asking for a person's particulars as part of a criminal investigation.

She added it is unlikely that HTX officers will collect any kind of personal data in the course of their duties.

But the agency will safeguard the Home Team's IT systems and the data they hold, through running the 24/7 MHA Security Operations Centre.

The centre will provide immediate response and investigate cyber security incidents and issues, and proactively monitor and detect suspicious activities or attempted intrusions into the MHA network, said Mrs Teo.

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