Legal and regulatory changes needed to support Singapore's Smart Nation push

Overview of Smart Nation initiatives

The Smart Nation initiative, first launched in 2014, is aimed at utilising technology to nurture and sustain innovation, improve government infrastructure and service delivery, and improve the lives of Singaporeans in general. To this end, the initiative has focused on 5 key domains in which digital technology can have a significant impact on citizens and society. These are: transport, home and environment, business productivity, health and enabled ageing, and public sector services. In furtherance of this, the Singapore Government revitalised its focus on digital and smart solutions on 20 March 2017 with the formation of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) to better integrate its strategy and processes for the Smart Nation programme.

Some of the initiatives soon to be launched under the Smart Nation umbrella include:

  • Tele-Health initiatives – Providing monitoring services for the elderly at home, vital signs monitoring, and video consultation services;
  • Self-driving vehicles – Trials are currently being conducted with a view to implementing the technology in public transportation in the future;
  • Big data and analytics technologies – Utilising data collected from Government data sources (such as the upcoming national sensor network) to solve the problems of today and anticipate the problems of tomorrow;
  • Cashless payment schemes – This includes the Central Addressing Scheme system that allows users to transfer funds across participating banks to other parties using only their mobile numbers, as well as the implementation of contactless payment services across retailers and service providers; and
  • Mobile Digital ID system – a unique online identity for every Internet user that can be used to authenticate online transactions with the Government and private merchants.

The legal and regulatory regime in Singapore will have to keep up with Singapore's drive to be a Smart Nation. The regime must be robust and this will entail implementing laws and regulations that protect all users, help encourage innovation, and that are non-discriminatory to industry players.

Privacy and the collection of data

In any discussion on privacy and state monitoring, the fictional "Big Brother" in the dystopian society of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is inevitably trotted out as an example of what could go wrong with extensive state surveillance. Such insecurity largely stems from the unilateral flow of information collected by the State through its various mechanisms and the potential for abuse of such power. With Singapore's push for nationwide sensors and monitoring systems, as well as a unique identity for Internet users, these fears will be fanned.

To manage such fears, regulators may need to implement laws and regulations that instil public trust if the government wishes to push for the wider adoption of smart technologies. For instance, measure for the protection of digital identities and the guarantee of data anonymity should be reinforced by legislation wherever possible. Such steps will go some way in addressing the concerns surrounding privacy and the collection of data.

Notwithstanding this, state surveillance and "govtech" is circumscribed by the rule of law and government agencies are always mindful of the possibility of judicial review. The real threats come from such data being captured and mined without consent or legal constraint - a recent Washington Post article wryly asked if your online newspaper was "reading you” as you read it. While legislation dealing with the collection, use and disclosure of personal data like the Personal Data Protection Act 2012 currently exists, additional laws and regulations may be required to adapt to the increased quantity and the new types of data being collected. To this end, regulation rather than self-policing would be more effective in managing data aggregators who have the potential to target the preferences and predilection of unsuspecting internet users.

The need to establish new standards

The Government and industry bodies will have to take a leading role in the establishment of standards in each sector to ensure the Smart Nation initiatives maximise their potential and are robust and secure.

With multiple public and private entities seeking to implement and use smart technologies, it is imperative that:

  • common standards be prescribed in terms of the collection and use of sensitive data;
  • critical control systems be identified and protected even as these get smarter; and
  • electronic transaction platforms are duly maintained to be secure and robust.

For instance, a standardisation of data collection and data storage methods will allow the data collected by the national sensor network and other Government sources to be shared and used effectively across different public bodies and private entities. Additionally, the standardisation of contactless payment methods and funds transfer services (besides removing the hassle of having to use multiple mobile apps or physical tokens) will also go a long way in reducing user resistance to such technology.

Updating regulations and laws to keep up with the changing landscape

At a more general level, the technological advances in multiple aspects of daily living and transacting may require changes to laws and regulations.

For instance, the cashless payment schemes and Mobile Digital ID System may necessitate an update to the regulation of online transactions, digital identities and e-payment services (such as in the Electronic Transactions Act) to adapt to the changing landscape of E-commerce.

Additionally, while the level of automation which can be accommodated on crowded Singapore roads is in question, self-driving technology is another area which will clearly require regulation. Such technology will provide a boost for ride-hailing, car-pooling and vehicle subscription services, and while market forces will dictate the level of penetration of such services and technologies, regulators must step in to implement laws and regulations that ensure user safety, consumer protection and fair allocation of liability in the use of such vehicles. Licensing may also be required to regulate particular activities or to ensure a level playing field for the players in the auto industry.

Exciting times ahead

The Smart Nation initiatives represent an exciting and creative phase in Singapore's development. New technology and its potential for monetisation may provide the catalyst for growth in multiple sectors quite apart from E-commerce and Fintech services. Additionally, innovative technology can be developed, tested and deployed in Singapore, thereby reaffirming Singapore's status as an Intellectual Property hub. Most significantly, the Smart Nation initiatives have the potential to significantly improve the standard of living as well as the efficiency of systems and processes in Singapore while creating collaborative synergies between the state, the industry and the citizen.

This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to provide general information only. Please contact our lawyers if you have any specific queries.

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