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Singapore patrol robots cause fears of over-surveillance

Posted on Wednesday 06 October 2021 at 08:24

Singapore is testing new robots that patrol the streets and harass residents to engage in “unwanted social behavior”, raising new concerns about privacy in the Southeast Asian city-state.

This new weapon comes in addition to already well-handled surveillance technologies: the island of Singapore already has plenty of surveillance cameras and streetlights equipped with facial recognition technology, allowing authorities to monitor the movements of residents.

The government has long promoted the concept of a high-performance and technologically advanced “smart nation”. Activists, however, believe that the right to privacy is being sacrificed and that residents do not have adequate control over the use of their data.

Singapore has often been criticized for violating civil liberties and its people are accustomed to many trials but there are signs of growing unrest with intrusive technology.

Patrol wheel robots, Singapore’s latest invention, are equipped with seven cameras that detect “unwanted social behavior” and alert criminals.

Smoking in an unauthorized area, improper parking of your bike or disrespecting the social distance rules associated with Covit-19 can all be blacklisted behaviors.

During a recent patrol, a robot named “Xavier” moved towards community housing and stood in front of a retired group watching a game of chess.

“Please keep a distance of one meter, please do not crowd more than five people,” the robot said, pointing his camera at the board.

During a three-week trial in September, two robots of this model were used to monitor a residence and a shopping center.

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“Reminds me of robotics,” says Branny Theo, a 34-year-old research assistant who walks through the mall.

It gives the impression of “the dystopian world (…) of robots, and I am still skeptical of this kind of concept,” he admitted.

– “No definitions” –

Digital rights activist Lee Yi Ding points out that these robots add many innovations to monitor Singaporeans.

“It contributes to the sense that people in Singapore need to be more careful about what we say and do than other countries,” he says.

But the government protects the use of robots, explaining that they were not used to identify criminals or to take action against them during the trial, and that they were necessary due to lack of manpower.

Ong Ka Hing, a collaborator with the government agency that created the “Xavier” robots that can mobilize fewer police officers for patrols, underscores that “the working population is declining.”

The island, home to about 5.5 million people, has 90,000 cameras for police, which is expected to double by 2030. It also uses facial recognition through devices often installed in streetlights to identify people on a face.

Singapore has faced a rare protest movement this year, with officials acknowledging that information gathered through an app dedicated to tracking corona virus cases was sent to police. The government later passed legislation restricting the use of this data.

But the city-state is being criticized by rights defenders, who condemn the government’s widespread surveillance, which is aware of some limitations.

Singaporeans have very little control over the processing of collected data.

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“There is no bar to respecting privacy or any law that defines what the government can or cannot do,” said Induletsumi Rajeswari, a Singapore-based privacy lawyer who is now in Germany.