Fragility of a 'smart' nation

Singapore's move towards a "smart" nation - powered by data and technological networks - will deliver public value ("A smart Singapore in the works", May 17; "Data sharing to help build 'tech-driven Smart Nation'"; May 28; and "Jurong Lake District to be test bed for 'smart nation'"; last Wednesday).

However, I worry about the downsides of networks. The 2008 financial crisis has shown how political and economic dislocations were products of dense international economic networks.

As a city becomes more networked, it grows increasingly fragile. The inherent danger in being a "smart" nation is that whereas enemies/terrorists used to target multiple installations in attacks, they now need only target a few.

They can disrupt the whole nation or seize control of a significant portion of the nation from a few key installations, given the networks. This has resonance as nations and terrorist organisations transition from waging conventional wars that see catastrophic casualties to cyberwars.

In this millennium, wars are fought covertly through bytes. That everything is automated could mean that significant damage to key installations vital to the nation - like a water plant - could go undetected.

A case in point is the Stuxnet virus that crippled the Iranian nuclear facility by spinning the centrifuges so quickly they were destroyed, while simultaneously deactivating warning alarms.

There is cause for worry that an amateur programmer like "The Messiah" could breeze through security systems to hack various government Web pages. A seasoned hacker could exploit a vulnerable link of, say, a private company that is working with the Government and gain access to the latter's network.

This highlights our vulnerabilities and reinforces the point that a network is only as strong as its weakest link.

Even as Singapore builds the networks that bind everybody to a "smart nation", what are the security implications of this arrangement and are we prepared for hostile attacks?

This is setting aside the more fundamental question of job displacement and whether we are economically resilient and able to identify new industries for citizens whose jobs are assumed by robots.

How will these displaced segments find their footing in a country thriving on technological expertise and will the new arrangement worsen inequalities?

Christopher Lin

This article was first published on June 24, 2014.
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