Delinking Internet access necessary to keep Govt data secure: PM Lee

Cutting Internet access from the work computers of public servants is "absolutely necessary" to keep Government data secure, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. PHOTO: ST FILE

YANGON - Delinking Internet access from the work computers of public servants is "absolutely necessary" to keep Government data secure, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore has seen very sophisticated, determined cyber attacks on its system in the past few years and takes these security threats seriously, he said, explaining the decision to reporters at the end of his official visit to Myanmar on Thursday.

From May next year, all 100,000 computers in use by the public service will not have direct access to the Internet.

Web surfing, however, is allowed but only on employees' personal mobile devices. Also, there will be separate government computers dedicated for employees to access the Internet for work.

Said PM Lee: "We have become completely dependent on our IT systems...and we have to make sure that our system is secure. We can't get infiltrated, data cannot be stolen, somebody can't come in and wipe out your data or cause some other mischief."

He added: "We've reached this point. We've decided to do it. Are we happy? I don't think so, because it will slow us down in terms of day-to-day productivity. In terms of security, safety of our systems, safety of our citizens and information concerning them, it's absolutely necessary.

"Otherwise, one day you find all your NRIC numbers, addresses and income tax returns for sale on the internet, one package 10 gigabytes. How will the Government explain?"

In fact, he was an early adopter of the new system, after being advised by security experts that it was necessary.

"I said okay, if you're going to do that, I shall be volunteer number one. Let me try, if I can hack it, then I think there's a chance it can work, if I can't hack it then I think it can't work," he said.

PM Lee added that he "locked down" from the Internet on his work computer at the beginning of the year (2016).

His assessment? "It's a nuisance, it takes some getting used to, but you can do it."

What he has now are two separate systems, one for email and another for internet browsing, he said.

"So now if I see a link, see an article, what do I do? I go through the trouble of copying down, make a PDF file, send over to the other side, I share it with my colleagues on PDF, so that they don't have to go through the opposite process, send it all the way back out again and then browse for it."

He pointed out that other ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministry, already operate in this way.

He added: "It is still possible to work, and for the officers who need to do Internet surfing and need to track what's happening in the world - MCI (Ministry of Communications and Information) particularly, but others too - they'll have two computers and they'll have to work like that.

But this approach will not apply to the entire government.

Teachers in schools, for instance, use a different system that will still be able to access the Internet.

Explaining, PM Lee said that schools have less sensitive information.

"Even if a bug comes in, the school side gets hacked, the exam results are a bit more sensitive, the exam papers are a bit more sensitive, but if your school page with your school anthem gets defaced, it's a nuisance but it's not the end of the world," he said.

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