‘Dystopian world’: Singapore patrol robots stoke fears of surveillance state

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Singapore has tested patrol bots that issue warnings to people engaging in “unwanted social behavior,” adding to an arsenal of surveillance technology in the tightly-controlled city-state that is fueling privacy concerns.

From large numbers of CCTV cameras to testing streetlights equipped with facial recognition technology, Singapore is seeing an explosion of tools to track its residents.

This includes a three-week trial in September, in which two robots were deployed to patrol a housing estate and a shopping center.

Officials have long championed the vision of a hyper-efficient, tech-driven ‘smart nation’, but campaigners say privacy is sacrificed and people have little control over what happens to their data .

Singapore is frequently criticized for restricting civil liberties and people are used to strict controls, but there is still growing unease with intrusive technology.

The government’s latest surveillance devices are robots on wheels, with seven cameras, which warn the public and detect “unwanted social behavior”.

This includes smoking in no-go areas, improperly parking bicycles, and violating coronavirus social distancing rules.

During a recent patrol, one of the “Xavier” robots made its way through a housing estate and stopped in front of a group of elderly residents watching a chess match.

“Please keep a distance of one meter, please limit yourself to five people per group,” shouted a robotic voice, as a camera above the machine aimed. look at them.

Frannie Teo, a 34-year-old research assistant, was walking through the mall during the recent robot patrol trial.

“It reminds me of Robocop,” she said.

It reminds me of a “dystopian world of robots … I’m a little hesitant about that kind of concept,” she added.

Digital rights activist Lee Yi Ting said the devices were the latest way Singaporeans were monitored.

“All of this contributes to the feeling that people (…) need to watch what they say and do in Singapore to a much greater extent than they would in other countries”, a- she told Agence France-Presse.

But the government has defended its use of robots, saying they were not used to identify or take action against violators during the tech trial, and were needed to deal with a labor shortage. as the population ages.

“The numbers are actually decreasing,” said Ong Ka Hing, of the government agency that developed the Xavier robots, adding that they could help reduce the number of officers needed for foot patrols.

The island of around 5.5 million people has 90,000 police cameras, a number expected to double by 2030, and facial recognition technology – which helps authorities spot faces in a crowd – could be installed on streetlights across the city.

There was a rare public backlash this year when authorities admitted that coronavirus contract tracing data collected by an official system had been viewed by police. The government then passed a law to limit its use.

But critics say city-state laws generally place few limits on government surveillance and Singaporeans have little control over what happens to the data collected.

“There is no privacy law constraint on what the government can or cannot do,” said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a Singapore privacy lawyer who is now based in Germany.

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