Fear Big Brother... or firms' abuse of Big Data?

Fear Big Brother... or firms' abuse of Big Data?

Whether Internet users are aware of it or not, a good chunk of their most personal and private information is probably sitting somewhere on the Internet.

Like most netizens, I use Web services like Yahoo's Flickr to share vacation photos, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share thoughts on the latest government policies.

On Google's Gmail, I e-mail travel plans and itineraries, some of which contain passport and banking details.

Like most responsible netizens, I dial up my privacy settings on these platforms to a pretty high level, limiting my online pourings and photos to only those whom I intend them for.

Or so I thought.

Over the past few months, each of these technology giants - Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook and, most recently, Yahoo - have all released reports, revealing that they have disclosed details of their users to governments which have demanded them.

Facebook said it had acceded to almost three-quarters of the 107 requests for details on 117 individuals it received from the Singapore Government in the first half of the year. Yahoo disclosed user details in 75 instances to the Singapore authorities within the same period.

The companies claim that most of the data released concerned basic user information such as names and how long a user had been using their services.

Yahoo revealed that it did disclose extracts of e-mail messages, contents of messenger chats and even entries in address books and calendars.

All the tech giants have insisted that they released details only if the requests were valid ones: those pertaining to national security or the investigation of a crime. But what exactly constitutes a matter of national security or a criminal act, and hence the decision of whether they accede to the requests, seems to remain at their discretion.

When asked about the nature of the Singapore Government's requests, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman would say only that law enforcement agencies may request data from persons or organisations for investigations into criminal cases, "as part of the evidence-gathering process provided for under the law".

The reports came on the heels of revelations earlier this year of the US government's top-secret surveillance programmes, which allegedly allow it to access data from major Internet companies.

Late last month, an Australian newspaper suggested that SingTel has been aiding a highly secretive intelligence unit of the Ministry of Defence and its Australian counterparts in harvesting communications carried on a major undersea telecommunications cable between Tuas and Perth. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, this is part of a partnership between intelligence agencies in Singapore and Australia, which extends to the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Canada as well.

When asked about the matter, SingTel declined to comment. The Defence Ministry would not respond to any of The Straits Times' queries either.

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