SINGAPORE - Rising security threats against government IT networks has made it necessary to hive off Web surfing from public servants' work computers, although exceptions may be made, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim.
Acknowledging that Internet separation may not be feasible in some cases, he said in Parliament on Monday (July 11): "I think we recognise that there may be some instances where separation may not be possible because of the nature of the work. So we will leave this to the agencies to work together with IDA (Infocomm Development Authority) to determine exactly how they are going to proceed."
In a statement late Monday night, the Ministry of Communications and Information clarified that the exception was meant to last until next May, when the new measure kicks in.
Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-In-Charge of Cybersecurity, was addressing questions from MPs on the measure, first reported in June in The Straits Times.
From next May, some 100,000 public servants will not be able to surf the Internet on their work computers. Everyone in the public service - except teachers, as they are plugged into a separate internal network - will be affected.
Those who need to surf the Internet for work will get to do so on dedicated Internet terminals, which will be provided. Public servants can also surf on their personal mobile devices, and forward non-classified e-mail from their work computers to their personal accounts.
Dr Yaacob said that between now and then, there will be workshops within each ministry, including with senior management and the technology department to "find the best way forward".
He added that the decision, which has gotten a mixed response from the public, is ultimately right in the face of growing cybersecurity threats.
"The Government has a duty to do all it can to protect the data it possesses, especially since such data often contains personal information of citizens," he said, noting that existing technology such as anti-virus could only stop 20 per cent to 30 per cent of malware.
The decision - aimed at plugging potential leaks from work e-mail and shared documents - prompted questions from MPs Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC).
They asked whether "more elegant solutions" were considered, and were concerned that the productivity and effectiveness of public servants would be affected.
Dr Yaacob said many options were considered, though he did not elaborate on them.
He added that the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were forerunners in tightening security a few years back, while the Defence Ministry had implemented even more stringent requirements.
"These organisations have not become less effective as a result," he said.
Workers' Party Non-constituency MP Daniel Goh asked if the measure would affect the development of Singapore's smart nation vision.
Dr Yaacob replied: "A strong cybersecurity provides a strong and sure foundation for building a smart nation."
He also noted that in 2014, there was a security breach of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' IT system. Steps were taken to isolate the affected devices and the networks were strengthened following the discovery.
Since then, there have been more targeted cyber-attacks on government networks, with the Government expecting more to follow.
"The attackers are more sophisticated. New tools are being developed from the dark side. And it's also very difficult for us to keep ahead," he said, explaining why Internet separation is a necessary step forward.