Singapore’s security agencies have been given new powers to take pre-emptive action against cyber-terrorists in a further tightening of the city state’s control over the internet.

The government would scan electronic networks for possible threats and could arrest suspected computer hackers and virus writers based on “specific intelligence received of an imminent cyber attack against our critical infrastructure”, such as power and water facilities, said Ho Peng Kee, the junior minister for law and home affairs.

“Instead of a backpack of explosives, a terrorist can create just as much devastation by sending a carefully engineered packet of data into the computer systems which control the network for essential services,” he told parliament.

But Ho Geok Choo, a government member of parliament, said the amended Computer Misuse Act sounded “very much like the cyber-space equivalent of the internal security act,” which permits indefinite detention of suspects without trial.

Although there was a need to protect national security, “such laws are wide-ranging, open-ended and if used indiscriminately, may be an instrument of oppression itself,” said Chin Tet Yung, chairman of the government parliamentary committee for home affairs and law.

Singapore, which has been ruled by the People’s Action party since 1959, already has tough laws on internet censorship and a ban on its use for political electioneering, which has curbed opposition efforts to organize supporters and raise funds.

Mr. Ho sought to allay worries about the invasion of privacy on the Internet, by saying the electronic scanning “measures will be non-intrusive in nature,” while the arrest of suspected hackers would be used sparingly and be limited to those who pose a national security threat. “It has never been our intention to intrude into the privacy of law-abiding citizens,” he said.

Singapore has spent heavily on creating an “intelligent island” based on an extensive state-owned broadband network to encourage computer use, but its controls on Internet content are seen by critics as trying to limit access to opposition views.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.


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