Singapore has tested patrol robots that issue warnings to people engaging in “undesirable social behavior,” adding to an arsenal of surveillance technology in the tightly controlled city-state that is fueling privacy concerns.
From a plethora of CCTV cameras to testing streetlights equipped with facial recognition technology, Singapore is experiencing an explosion of tools to track its inhabitants.
Officials have long pushed the vision of a hyper-efficient, technology-driven “smart nation,” but activists say privacy is being sacrificed and people have little control over what happens to their data.
Singapore is frequently criticized for curbing civil liberties and people are used to tight controls, but there is still a growing concern about intrusive technology.
The latest government surveillance devices are robots on wheels, with seven cameras, which issue warnings to the public and detect “undesirable social behavior.”
This includes smoking in prohibited areas, incorrectly parking bikes, and violating the 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 game of chess.
“Please keep a distance of one meter, please stay at five people per group,” yelled a robotic voice, as a camera on top of the machine focused its gaze on them.
During a three-week test in September, two robots were deployed to patrol the housing estate and a shopping center.
“It reminds me of Robocop,” said Frannie Teo, a 34-year-old research assistant, who was walking through the mall.
It reminds me of a “dystopian world of robots … I’m a bit hesitant about that kind of concept,” he added.
Digital rights activist Lee Yi Ting said the devices were the latest way Singaporeans were monitored.
“It all contributes to the feeling that people … need to monitor what they say and do in Singapore much more than in other countries,” he told AFP.
But the government defended its use of robots, saying they were not being used to identify or take action against criminals during the technology trial, and that they were necessary to address a job crisis as the population ages.
“The workforce is actually shrinking,” 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 roughly 5.5 million people has 90,000 police cameras, a number that will double by 2030, and facial recognition technology, which helps authorities distinguish faces from the crowd, can be installed on lamp posts throughout the city.
This year there was a rare backlash when authorities admitted that police had accessed coronavirus contract tracking data collected by an official system. Later, the government passed legislation to limit its use.
But critics say city-state laws generally place few limitations on government surveillance, and Singaporeans have little control over what happens to the data collected.
“There are no privacy law restrictions on what the government can or cannot do,” said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a Singaporean privacy lawyer who is now based in Germany.