Singapore has set course towards building a Smart Nation that is driven by big data, and changes in the law and regulations are pertinent to that end.

Singapore’s Prime Minister first announced the government’s vision to become the world’s first Smart Nation in November 2014. Since then, Singapore has been revising its legal and regulatory framework to create the ideal state-incubator for a tech-revolution.

3 years later, on 24 February 2017, the Prime Minister lamented, “We really are not going as fast as we ought to”. He championed the idea that Singapore should leverage on big data analytics to reach its Smart Nation aspirations. These statements were early signs of the government’s intention to ramp up its efforts in 2017 to become a Smart Nation.

New Government Agencies and Initiatives after the Prime Minister’s Remarks

Less than 2 months after the Prime Minister’s remarks on big data, it was announced that a Data Innovation Programme Office (“DIPO”) and a data sandbox programme will be set up in Singapore. Amongst its various functions, DIPO will work towards developing a forward-looking and clear data regulatory environment, assist small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”) to adopt data analytics, and facilitate the data sandbox and other data sharing initiatives. The data sandbox will allow for more big data experimentations to be carried out in a neutral environment with relaxed regulations. The data sandbox will also be utilised by different regulatory authorities to work towards new norms for the new economy.

Subsequent Changes in Law

A flurry of consultation papers, bills and guidelines also were introduced to the public to futher the big data plan.

Privacy Law – proposed amendments to give organisations more leeway to use data

At the forefront, there are proposals to amend the Personal Data Protection Act (“PDPA”) so that organisations are better enabled to carry out big data analytics. The proposed amendments will allow organisations to repurpose personal data for data analytics without obtaining consent; they may not even be required to notify data subjects under certain circumstances! The Personal Data Protection Commission has also published a ‘Guide to Data Sharing’ to help organisations to determine whether they may share personal data and the proper methods to do so.

Copyright Law – potential exceptions for “text and data mining”

For the Copyright Act, there is a proposed exception to copyright infringement to permit “text and data mining” activities to support the growth of the data analytics business sector.

Patent law – leveraging on data analytics to improve patent application process

In the realm of patent law, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (“IPOS”) has announced that they will be utilising data analytics to create a more economical, efficient and accurate patent examination process.

Competition law – call for greater data sharing

On the competition law front, the Competition Commission of Singapore has released publications highlighting the economic benefits of data sharing and clarifying what type of data analytic practices would not constitute a breach of the Competition Act.

Cybersecurity Law – tighter cybersecurity needed as reliance on technology increases

While other legislative changes suggest a liberalization of the current laws to allow organisations to leverage on big data, one of the most major legislative changes was the introduction of the Cybersecurity Bill.

The Cybersecurity Bill formalises the duties of owners of critical information infrastructure, including having in place the appropriate cybersecurity measures to protect the computer and computer systems of critical information infrastructure. An increase in volume and reliance on big data analytics in Singapore would mean that appropriate safety measures must be put in place.

The Obstacles

While Singapore has taken significant steps towards becoming a Smart Nation, there is still a lot to be done.

Firstly, the devil is in the details. Until the dust settles, it is unclear how the proposed plans will be practically executed. For example, while IPOS has made multiple announcements on utilising big data for the patent examination process, no further details have been released so far on the actual mechanics of the new system. Organisation will also need more time to understand how the changes in the law will translate into practical consequences. While government agencies have indicated that they will be releasing more guidelines in the future to assist businesses, norms and market practices will only emerge with time and trial and error.

Secondly, further clarity on the effect of the new and revised legislation on technology stacks will be welcomed. For example, it is currently unclear how the Cybersecurity Bill will affect vendors and intermediaries who provide services to owners of critical information infrastructure.

It will also be curious to see how Singapore will balance its drive to be more innovative with its need to meet international standards and obligations. While Singapore liberates its technology regulations with the hopes of attracting more entrepreneurs and tech companies, this appears to be heading in the opposite direction of other nations who are moving towards crystallising the right to privacy as a fundamental human right. An example is the difference between Singapore’s proposed ‘Legal or Business Purposes’ basis for the Personal Data Protection Act and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation’s ‘Legitimate Interests’ basis; although the former was adapted from the latter.

Navigating the Changes

As Singapore continues to sail towards its big dreams of being a Smart Nation, it will be interesting to see how it navigates potential rocks in the waters.

However, time and tide waits for no man and there is much to be gained for first movers in the Big Data economy in Singapore. Organisations that aspire to catch the first wave must be agile and sensitive to the ambiguities and fast-evolving nature of the legal landscape. With a smart and flexible legal strategy, a close working relationship with the new government authorities, some leverage on the new initiatives and a speckle of boldness, an organisation who chooses to adopt big data now can go far in and with Singapore.