Tuesday, June 28, 2005

That Knock On The Door At Night

Motorists in Singapore have a device in the vehicle which can track the driver's whereabouts, thanks to the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system of sensors which are also used in many commercial car parks. The citizen's National Registration Identification Card (NRIC) number, which is also the Passport Number, Driving Licence Number, Income Tax Reference Number, and now Birth Certificate Number, basically reduces the individual to a series of traceable digits. George Orwell must have had Singapore in mind when he wrote about Big Brother in his chilling novel "1984".

Mr Mika Sampovaara, a 35-year-old trader from Finland who moved to Singapore last year, obviously wasn't thoroughly briefed on the local situation here. He received a letter from the Department of Statistics (DOS) in March, inviting him to take part in the General Household Survey.

Mr Sampovaara demurred. "I don't have anything to hide, but I should have a basic right to privacy. They want to know my passport number, date of birth, education level, my wife's name, and so on. It's very unusual for me. Whatever the institution, reputable or not, that's a lot to ask for," he said.

When he told the DOS that he did not wish to participate, he did not expect the official response: "I was told that was not an option and had to give them the information they wanted."

If he didn't do so on time, he would be fined; anyone who refuses to answer or knowingly provides wrong information to a goverment officer in Singapore faces a potential fine of up to S$1,000.

But Mr Sampovaara comes from Finland, a country where there is no obligation for people to take part in such surveys. This was confirmed by the Embassy of Finland. In fact, about 37 per cent of the people there refuse to - or do not - respond to similar household surveys.

"Don't get me wrong, I love Singapore very much. It is a very safe country and I've had a wonderful time here so far," said Mr Sampovaara. "I do not like to be forced to do anything just for the sake of doing so," he added.

The department claims that the survey, conducted once every 10 years, is extremely important. After compiling data on how much families earn, spend and travel, it helps the Government plan public programmes and policies. Apparently, the DOS remains unmoved in the face of his stand. Mr Sampovaara said he had received at least ten (10) telephone calls from the department, which randomly selected 90,000 homes - about 10 per cent of households here - for the survey.

When he declined to cooperate, a DOS officer came knocking on his door. It was after 10pm. "I told him to go away but it was hard to sleep afterwards," said Mr Sampovaara.

Ms Ang Seow Long, its Assistant Director of Publications and Statistical Information, said: "It typically takes about half an hour for a family of four to complete the GHS. It's important that respondents provide the required information so that the results are complete and nationally representative. The majority of respondents are co-operative and have helped to maintain a high response rate." Note "high response rate" and not "100 per cent response rate".

She reiterated that the households that had been selected could not be replaced - to ensure that the survey remained representative. She said there were safeguards in place to protect the confidentiality of the information given to the DOS. However the DOS officer coming to your door does not carry a non-disclosure agreement, and it is doubtful he/she will sign one prepared by you.

Mr Sampovaara, to whom the issue of privacy is vital, still hasn't budged. He is beginning to realise there are no easy answers.

Meanwhile in Finland:

Section 10 of the Constitution of Finland, entitled "The right to privacy," states: "Everyone's private life, honour and the sanctity of the home are guaranteed. The secrecy of correspondence, telephony and other confidential communications is inviolable. Measures encroaching on the sanctity of the home, and which are necessary for the purpose of guaranteeing basic rights and liberties or for the investigation of crime, may be laid down by an Act.

The Personal Data Protection Act of 1999 (PDPA)[1081] went into effect on June 1, 1999, and was amended by the Act on the Amendment of the Personal Data Act.[1082] The law replaced the 1987 Personal Data File Act[1083] to make Finnish law consistent with the EU Data Protection Directive. The new act introduces the concept of informed consent and self-determination into Finnish law. The previous act regulated the use and disclosure of information in a personal data file but did not generally require the individual's consent or provide for the same level of notice and access.[1084] Processing without consent may still occur under the new system, for example, if there is "assumed consent," or the Data Protection Board has granted permission, or if the matter concerns publicly available data on the "status, duties or performance" of a public figure.[1085] The PDPA lays down civil and criminal sanctions (including imprisonment of up to one year) for unlawful processing.