Singapore tested some patrol robots They issue warnings to people engaged in “undesirable social behavior,” adding to the surveillance technology arsenal in this tightly controlled city-state.
From the vast number of cameras to the light poles equipped with facial recognition technology currently under test, Singapore has seen an explosion of tools to monitor its inhabitants.
Authorities have pushed forward their vision of a “smart nation”, hyper-efficient and technological, but activists say privacy was sacrificed and that people have little control over what is done with their data.
Singapore has been criticized for curtailing civil liberties and its population has grown accustomed to tight controls, but there is growing concern with intrusive technology.
The most recent surveillance devices are the wheeled robots with seven cameras, which issue warnings to the public and detect “unwanted social behavior”.
That includes smoking in prohibited areas, parking bikes improperly or violating the rules of approach for the coronavirus.
During a recent patrol, one of the “Xavier” robots entered a residential area and stopped in front of a group of elderly people watching a game of chess.
“Please keep a meter away”, “please stick to five people per group,” a robotic voice alerted, while a camera from the device focused on them.
During a three-month test in September, two robots were sent to patrol that residential area 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 brings to mind “a dystopian world of robots … I’m a bit hesitant about this kind of concept,” she added.
Lee Yi Ting, a digital rights activist, said the gadgets are the latest way to monitor Singaporeans. “It all contributes to the feeling that people should take care of what they say and do in Singapore., more than they would in other countries, “he told AFP.
But the government defends the use of robots, saying that during the testing phase they will not be able to identify or take action against those who commit offenses, and that they are necessary to address the lack of workers due to the aging population.
“The workforce is shrinking,” said Ong Ka Hing of the government agency that developed the Xavier robots. He added that they could help reduce the number of officers required to patrol the streets.
Singapore, a controlled island
The island of 5.5 million people has 90,000 police cameras, and the idea is to double that number by 2030, while it could deploy city-wide facial recognition technology that helps authorities distinguish faces in the crowd.
This year there were signs of public rejection when the authorities admitted that the police had access to information on COVID-19 cases collected by an official system.
The government subsequently passed laws to limit its use.
But critics say city-state laws tend to limit government surveillance little, and Singaporeans have little control over what happens to the data collected.
“There are no privacy laws that restrict what the government can or cannot do,” said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a Singaporean privacy lawyer currently based in Germany.