Singapore ranks 6th for government surveillance of big tech user accounts

Apple was the most compliant of the four, with a disclosure rate of 80 per cent from 2013 to 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singapore ranked sixth in the world for surveillance across the platforms of four tech firms Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft, based on a study.

The study by Netherlands-based cyber-security firm Surfshark examines the tech firms' transparency reports over eight years from 2013.

The ranking of 161 territories is determined by the total number of user accounts requested for every 100,000 residents across all four tech firms over the eight years. Territories with fewer than 100,000 residents were not included in the ranking.

Malta topped the list with 1,128 accounts requested for every 100,000 residents across the four tech platforms, followed by Luxembourg (1,014), the United States (585), Germany (489), the United Kingdom (486) and Singapore (452).

Based on the absolute number of accounts requested (26,425) over the eight years across all four platforms, Singapore ranked 21st, according to Surfshark. The United States came up top having asked for information from more than 1.93 million user accounts across the four platforms over the same period.

Other top data requesters India, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom and France - combined - matched the US' requests (total of 1.93 million accounts) from the four tech firms over the eight years.

When contacted, a Ministry of Communications and Information spokesman said local authorities needed information, including those of local and foreign account users, due to increasing cybercrime such as transborder online scams and cyber-extortion. For example, the number of social media impersonation scams in Singapore has quadrupled from 786 cases in 2019 to 2,919 cases in 2020.

Tech lawyer Mr Bryan Tan, a partner at Reed Smith, said that Singapore's high ranking in this study could be attributed to its tech savvy population of more than 5 million people who produce a huge amount of digital exhaust.

"A lot of the things that people do that are regulated or investigated has a digital trail," he added.

The study did not capture other huge markets like South Korea, Japan and China. Their residents use locally-created social media, search and chat platforms due either to language preferences or government restrictions.

The rate of disclosure of user data - partially or fully - in response to governments' legal and emergency requests varies across the 161 territories.

Disclosure to the Singapore government stood at around 69 per cent, while the US and UK government received information for every four out of five requests they made.

Apple was the most compliant of the four, with a disclosure rate of 80 per cent from 2013 to 2020 for all requests from 177 territories, including those with fewer than 100,000 residents, according to the Surfshark study. Meanwhile, Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft fulfilled about 70 per cent of all requests during the eight years.

According to the latest transparency reports from the four tech firms available on their websites, the Singapore government requested the largest number of accounts (2,721) from Meta from January to June last year (2021).

Comparatively, Singapore requested for information from 1,603 Google accounts, 358 Microsoft accounts and 68 Apple accounts over the same period.

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