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Singapore 13 November 2003

Parliament grants government powers tightening Internet surveillance

Reporters Without Borders has warned against the risk of abuse of an amendment to the Computer Misuse Act intended to tighten Internet security. Parliament has amended Article 15A of the Act allowing continuous surveillance of cyber-suspects thanks to real-time monitoring software and authorising their pre-emptive arrest before a crime has been committed. Cyber-criminals are liable for jail terms of up to three years.

The Government says the new amendment will combat "imminent attacks" that could threaten security, essential services, defence or Singapore’s foreign relations. It says the law will not be used to oversee normal Internet use.

Reporters Without Borders warned however of the risk of abuse: "Even if the fight against cyber-crime has become essential, it should not justify the granting of extraordinary powers to governments" said Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "The amendment adopted by Singapore’s Parliament gives too much discretion to the minister of home affairs as to the scope of his authority. We urge therefore that these decisions should be checked by an independent body" he added.

One Member of Parliament, Ho Geok Choo, said that the amended article made it more like the Internal Security Act (ISA), designed to counter ordinary crime. This law adopted soon after the city state‚s independence has long been used by the government to make arbitrary arrests of political dissidents.

Parliamentarians also condemned a lack of clarity in the terms of the Act. Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party said the law could be used to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of being a cyber-criminal. He added that he believed the Government was using this law as a pretext to monitor Internet use.

The Act does not say what type of agency or organisation could be authorised by the minister of home affairs to supervise the Internet. Nor does it explain what steps could be taken by the minister when he judges an attack to be "imminent". The law also makes no provision for any external body to verify the basis on which decisions are taken.

Reporters Without Borders condemned similar laws adopted in the United States and in the countries of the EU after the attacks of 11 September 2001.




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