Ahead of the UK's general elections, David Cameron has argued that the UK government should be allowed to access any and all forms of communication. It is premised on his assertion that until now, governments have always taken the position that there should be no means of communication that the government is unable to gain access to, which is why certain intrusive activities (think wiretapping) can be carried out with a warrant. He implies that his position is just a simple extension of the current practice.
If Mr Cameron gets his way, the effect would be that all forms of communication will become subject to government access (upon the necessary formalities being met) - your Whatsapps, iMessages, Snapchats, Telegrams, etc, notwithstanding that many of these communications services are encrypted in an attempt to protect the privacy of the users.
In this regard, Singapore can lay (dubious) claim to being well ahead of the curve - Singapore's Personal Data Protection Act 2012 ("PDPA") has express exemptions for this purpose.
Beyond that, section 4(1)(c) of the PDPA exempts public agencies and organizations acting on behalf of public agencies entirely from the PDPA's data protection obligations. A "public agency" is defined under the PDPA as "the Government, including any ministry, department, agency or organ of State, any tribunal appointed under any written law, or any statutory body [established under a public Act]."
It therefore seems clear that the position in Singapore and currently espoused by Mr Cameron is "do as we say, not as we do". Private entities and companies are expected to provide personal data protection while government entities should be allowed complete and unrestricted access. (Of course, whether an offshore tech firm could be compelled to disclose records of an individual's Whatsapp messages remains an entirely separate issue.)
But this ultimately brings into clearer view the underlying question that now plagues all modern Westernized countries - how far should our civil liberties (what little of them we've managed to preserve) be eroded in the name of combating terrorism? Do terrorists win when we sacrifice our rights to protect ourselves, or are we demonstrating our strength when we say we'll do whatever it takes to protect our people?
No one has a satisfactory answer for this, and maybe there isn't one.
Associate Director, Bernard & Rada Law Corporation
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