HSA trials bot targeting contraband items on e-commerce platforms

From January to May, the authorities removed over 3,200 listings of illicit health products from local e-commerce platforms. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) is trialling an e-commerce surveillance tool to crack down on contraband products sold online.

Developed by the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX), the bot uses robotic process automation and artificial intelligence to trawl through listings.

The contraband items it targets include illegal drugs, health products and cosmetics. It can even spot unauthorised Covid-19 test kits and vaccines.

From January to May, the HSA removed more than 3,200 listings of illicit health products from local e-commerce platforms. This was done through a semi-automated process.

Previously, each listing had to be sifted through manually, and information on each item had to be analysed one at a time.

With the bot, this process can be done in a matter of hours, instead of weeks.

The time saved means harmful products reach fewer potential buyers, enhancing the safeguarding of public health.

The bot analyses information from the listings - including pictures, descriptions and profiles - to identify illegal products, and flags those that contain illegal or dangerous ingredients.

Enforcement officers can then focus on reviewing the flagged items and having them removed promptly.

The bot was developed by HTX within three months and the HSA began its trial on July 8.

It will be tested for a month before being fine-tuned and fully deployed.

Ms Annie Tan, director of the enforcement branch at the HSA's health product regulation group, said the bot was a welcome innovation for enforcement officers.

"With the rise in online transactions on e-commerce platforms comes the increasing risk of illicit health products being sold and bought online," she said.

"HSA is glad to collaborate with HTX on this project to further leverage the use of technology and automation to identify such product listings more accurately and effectively, and remove them promptly to safeguard public health."

Mr Yuen Shao Wei, director of the Data Science and AI Centre of Expertise at HTX, said surveillance of contraband products is an arduous task, traditionally requiring significant man hours of sifting through the listings.

"Enforcement officers have to carefully examine the listing and, at times, look out for combinations of different substances and chemicals that could put consumers in danger," he said.

"Products that have ingredients above permissible amounts could also be used for other things when they fall into the wrong hands, and this needs to be picked out.

"With this tool, we'll be able to force-multiply the Home Team and enable our officers to carry out this arduous task faster and smarter."

HTX said the bot is also being customised for other Home Team agencies to assist them in solving crimes and enhancing public safety and security.

These modified versions are expected to be trialled in the coming months.

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