Office workers cross a street during lunch hour in the central business district in Singapore. Edgar Su/Reuters

They’re on buses, atop buildings, in parks, and inside drains as part of the island’s vision to become the world’s first “Smart Nation.” But what do they mean for privacy?

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Armed with a deep pool of tech entrepreneurs and startups—not to mention a government that’s eager to make the most use out of them—the island-nation of Singapore offers a wealth of urban innovation.

Today’s Singapore provides free WiFi inside subway stations, and it’s paved the way for its first driverless taxis. With limited access to fresh water, the city-state has also developed technology to catch rain and desalinate some 100 million gallons of seawater a day. Even its fabled fancy bus stops get a dose of high technology.

Then there are the sensors, cameras, and GPS devices. They’re on trains, buses, and taxis, tracking traffic and employing artificial intelligence to predict crashes. You can spot them around public spaces to monitor safety and crowd density, and atop buildings to monitor air quality and pedestrian movement. But that’s just the beginning.

In short, Singapore is a city—and nation—of sensors, barely noticeable to the average citizen. But they know they’re there. It’s all part of the government’s plan to become the world’s first “Smart Nation,” which was kick-started in 2014 with the rollout of 1,000 sensors. In the grand scheme, Singapore wants to build a network of sensors to collect and connect data from all aspects of urban life—not just traffic and infrastructure but also human movement and behavior. All that information, collected across various departments, will then feed into a central platform, accessible to all governmental agencies. The engineers behind it have dubbed the plan “E3A,” for “Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the Time.”

Already, developers are working on systems that can detect, for example, if someone is smoking in a non-smoking area. And recently the government piloted a program using wireless sensor technology inside private homes to track the movements and sleeping patterns of older residents, as part of an effort to better safeguard the health of the growing aging population. It’s even hoping to harness artificial intelligence to help the government predict what services an individual needs.

“One of the most important things we want to use AI for is a thing called ‘Moments of Life,’” Mark Lim, director of product design in Singapore’s new digital agency GovTech, told the Centre of Public Impact in February. “The idea behind this was instead of asking citizens to go to different government websites and different apps, we could anticipate the services they require at key moments in life by using AI.”

And that central platform? By the end of this year, Singapore hopes to have launched Virtual Singapore—essentially a $73 million digital model of the entire city built by the French company Dassault Systèmes. It looks something like SimCity, with 3D renderings of buildings, parks, and waterways to help policymakers and urban planners visualize the data.

In this simulation, planners can zoom in on actual buildings to analyze their real-world energy use, or spot trends in, say, noise and pollution levels. They can simulate emergencies and test out possible solutions or explore the impact of the built environment on shadows and temperature over a particular area. Perhaps in the future, it can help planners detect the spread of disease based on the commuting patterns, or predict manmade disasters, all of which would put the government one step ahead of any surprises that might crop up.

With such advanced technology in the works, Singapore is easily the envy of aspiring smart cites across the globe. It’s even more impressive considering that just 50 years ago, the island was little more than a swamp; the GDP per capita was $500. “When Singapore became independent in 1965, no one expected it to survive,” says Simon Chesterman, a professor of data protection law at the National University of Singapore. “It was a tiny state with no natural resources—it doesn't even have water.” (Singapore imports its water from Malaysia.)

Meanwhile, several U.S. cities, especially New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are also working hard to tap into transformative power of big data, some with the help of universities and organizations like Mapbox, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Knight Foundation. Does that make Singapore a harbinger of what cities here in the U.S. should look like?

“Even Singapore isn't quite there yet in terms of what it aspires to be,” says Kelsey Finch, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum. “What will hold true for U.S. cities is that they will aspire to be smarter …  and privacy is going to get balanced with a bunch of public good policies, making sure that city governments are transparent and accountable.”

The thing is, Singapore is as exciting for the future of big data and connected technology as it is unsettling for those concerned about the role of privacy in a smart city. It’s been successful in providing public services in part because it can collect vast amounts of data on its citizens without raising much public concern about mass surveillance—something that U.S. cities would find difficult.

There’s a lot that’s helping Singapore realize its vision, namely a strong tech sector, a proactive government, and a tech-savvy population that can see the results of this efficiency. But there’s also another factor: The city-state’s strict government can operate under rather lax personal data protection laws that restrict company use of private information but largely exclude the public sector. That means there’s little, if any, limit to how agencies collect and share data for the benefit of better services. According to Chesterman, that’s because Singapore’s data-protection laws aren’t about protecting individual rights as much as they are about creating an environment for big data to thrive.

Singaporeans, he says, don’t mind the trade-off. “The attitude toward government is very much that the government is a source of security and material comfort,” Chesterman says, adding that the willingness of citizens to pass personal data to the government somewhat mirrors how U.S. citizens eagerly hand information to companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. “People find it useful, convenient, and they do largely trust these companies to do the right thing with their data.” (Though it’s fair to say even that trust is wavering in the U.S.)

Singaporeans have a remarkable amount of faith in public institutions: One survey found that 74 percent of the general population trusts the government. Meanwhile in the U.S., the 2013 leak of National Security Agency documents by Edward Snowden have put Americans on edge, and seemingly harmless initiative like making streetlights smarter often brings up the question of whether the technology could be turned into a surveillance tool. From Oakland, California, to Seattle, to Chicago, cities have faced backlash over smart initiatives to learn from big data collection.

That’s not to say that Singaporeans don’t have any privacy concerns—moving forward, Chesterman expects that the government will face more demands for transparency. For their part, officials do acknowledge possible vulnerabilities, citing the need to invest in cybersecurity and anonymize data. To prevent hacking from outsiders and insiders, it’s already taken the controversial step of cutting civil servants off from the internet. Although, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, even Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign affairs minister and minister-in-charge of Smart Nation, admits that officials “don’t have the answers.”

Singapore is yet another smart-city laboratory—albeit one with more resources and capabilities than most U.S. metros. “Everybody has their own expectations [about personal data], and all of these new shifting norms as we get used to the technology will play a role in shaping the direction that cities go,” Finch says. “I don’t think that we're likely to see sort of the pristine untouched cities of the future; it’s going to be a little bit messier.”

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