Singapore: Monitoring app plan on students’ govt.-subsidised PCs sparks privacy fears


A new initiative of the Singaporean government to subsidise all computers for stay at home students has raised privacy concern over the installation of monitoring software.

The programme, accelerated by the closure of schools last year as part of COVID-19 lockdown rules, offers subsidies to all secondary school students to ensure they have access to computers by the end of 2021.

In December last year, the government announced that the computers will be fitted with device management applications, while students using their own computers will also need to have these installed onto their devices.

The software allows teachers to view and control students’ screens remotely, the vendor has said, sparking an online petition against the plan and criticism from international NGO, Human Rights Watch.

The education ministry told Singapore broadcaster CNA this month that the software would capture data such as students’ search history to restrict “objectionable material” but would not track personal data such as location or passwords.

The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday that “the lack of definition over what constitutes ‘objectionable material’, and the lack of transparency in how these decisions are made, undermines children’s ability to speak freely and access information”.

Public pushback is rare in the tightly-controlled island nation of 5.7 million but an online student petition urging the government to compromise and not force students to install the software has gained around 6,600 signatures.

It comes after the government faced criticism last month for not disclosing that data collected on its COVID-19 contact tracing app would be available to police. The backlash led the government to introduce a law change to restrict police’s use of the data.

The education ministry has said it plans to bulk order laptops equipped with the monitoring software to be purchased by students using the subsidies.

Schools were closed for a couple of months last year at the height of Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the government will later this year introduce regular home-based learning days for secondary school students as part of a digital literacy drive. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)