The rise of private surveillance

Written by By Onna Mekonen, CNN Privacy-conscious consumers are switching to more secure products as the market for surveillance-friendly gadgets explodes. The digital and behavioral surveillance used by governments around the world — and

Written by By Onna Mekonen, CNN

Privacy-conscious consumers are switching to more secure products as the market for surveillance-friendly gadgets explodes. The digital and behavioral surveillance used by governments around the world — and in the US by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — are driving technology sales.

“This is the first time ever that consumers are buying private products instead of the other way around,” said James Namhah, managing director of BBK, a Singapore-based surveillance products and security inspection company. “When the private product doesn’t give you anything, it’s not attractive.”

Wei said this trend is exacerbated in Singapore, due to the ever-more stringent laws around surveillance. The consumer market for surveillance products has exploded in the past two years, with turnover estimated to be in the US$9billion-10 billion range.

While the appliances that track and monitor people’s movements can be used for good, the growing concern among the general public is that they could be used for bad. “There’s a fear that this technology is getting exposed or its functionality can be used for improper purposes,” said Wei.

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What has changed in the surveillance market in the past 12 months? Nearly all surveillance products rely on ‘locate and trace’ technology, which can track movements, including those without the owner’s consent.

Many products are also equipped with advanced image and audio analysis software, which allows authorities to map locations, groups, or individuals in real time. Most, in fact, feature camera-like sensors that record and store footage automatically and sequentially.

Risk to privacy

Some of these products, however, lack adequate privacy protections, according to international advocates. Countries such as China and Singapore, for example, have strict laws that prevent governments from conducting mass surveillance on their citizens. Many of these measures don’t extend to the home, either, as access to data remains a matter of the individual’s own consent.

In Singapore, for example, the government defines “foreign surveillance” as one conducted by a foreign agency on Singaporean citizens, including through mass surveillance systems.

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The country doesn’t accept surveillance from the media, commercial or private companies, and has a “no subversion” principle with regards to foreign security authorities seeking to monitor Singaporeans.

Many surveillance products, however, appear to be intentionally targeting the United States, said Wei.

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“A lot of the surveillance products are American (in origin) with a lot of oversight in the US,” he said. “The laws are skewed toward the government, and in Singapore, when you have a government, it’s more of an oversight-based system (…). That’s why (operators) will have to let Singapore monitor their systems,” Wei added.

Singapore’s approach to regulating surveillance technology dates back to 2014, when lawmakers passed the Surveillance Technology Protection Act. The law grants authorities in the country, including those from the Bureau of Immigration and Checkpoints (BIC), the authority to block any surveillance device found to be doing harmful, illegal or immoral activities.

Grim future for mass surveillance

Though Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to act on consumer concerns over mass surveillance — not far behind the Australian government’s plans to scan all mobile phones in 2019 — less stringent regulation still exists in Europe.

Canberra has said it will equip 100 law enforcement agencies and other agencies across the country with device-reading equipment, the installation of which will likely be completed by 2021.

In Europe, national governments are enacting similar legislation for national security agencies. The European Commission just proposed extending to 2019, the current ban on surveillance devices.

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