Puzzlement greets Singapore government’s plan to ban its civil servants from the Web

Is a nation that self-consciously says it is a ‘smart’ one crazy to cut itself off from the Web? It turns out Singapore had good reasons to ‘air gap’ itself – but the move may still be a damaging one for its public sector

Posted 30 August 2016 by

'Singapore' by Fabrizio Vita off FlickrA certain amount of global confusion has been caused by this week’s announcement by the Republic of Singapore that from next May, if you work in the city-state’s public sector – the Internet will no longer be for you.

The tightly-managed nation says the move to deny web access to any of its public servants is as a defence against potential cyber attack – presumably from near-neighbour China.

The idea is to put a perimeter around the country’s infrastructure by so-called ‘air gapping‘ – not allowing any external connection to wider networks from the ones you wish to secure. Singapore’s public servants will still be able to surf the web, but only on separate personal or agency-issued devices.

The immediate reaction was that the move was a backwards step for a technologically advanced polity that had trademarked the very term “smart nation”, and whose Internet connection speed is among the fastest in Asia Pacific.

Reuters quoted a number of security experts descrying say the policy, as possibly “damaging productivity among civil servants… cutting them off from the people they serve,” for example, quoting one director of security solutions’ opinion that it was  “one of the more extreme measures I can recall by a large public organisation to combat cyber security risks”, while Ramki Thurimella, chair of the computer science department at the University of Denver, called it both “unprecedented” and “a little excessive”.

Website Boing Boing, popular with the developer community, also pitched in, with the site’s co-founder and security commentator and SF author Cory Doctorow warning the scheme will most likely be ineffective, as well as annoying staff: “Disconnecting computers from the Internet just makes doing your job harder, and sometimes impossible…. the best employees, the people most invested in doing their jobs well, are the ones who will trade the short-term benefit of getting the job done for the long-term, speculative cost of compromising network security.”

However, other commentators point out that Singapore has genuine grounds for concern, with one cyber security company noting organisations in South East Asia were 80% more likely than the global average to be hit by an advanced cyber attack.

This risk is higher in the South China Sea, where China and others have overlapping claims, it adds.