Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Singapore already caught in information warfare, experts say

SINGAPORE — Singapore was the target of a foreign country’s information warfare campaign recently, two academics revealed on Friday (March 16) while giving evidence to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Yet, even with this and cyber attacks against “sensitive (government) ministries” happening, Singapore is still not fully prepared for such attacks, the two researchers said.

Singapore already caught in information warfare, experts say

The Select Committee studying deliberate online falsehoods questioning witnesses on the third day of public hearings, at the public hearings of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information

SINGAPORE — Singapore was the target of a foreign country’s information warfare campaign recently, two academics revealed on Friday (March 16) while giving evidence to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. Yet, even with this and cyber attacks against “sensitive (government) ministries” happening, Singapore is still not fully prepared for such attacks, the two researchers said.

Dr Gulizar Haciyakupoglu from the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), and Dr Damien D Cheong, who is with the school’s National Security Studies Programme, gave oral evidence in separate hearings held in private because their representations “concerned matters of national security and international relations”. Their session lasted more than an hour.

The Select Committee, set up by the Government to study online falsehoods and ways to deal with their consequences, did not elaborate on why the two academics were giving testimonies on national security and foreign affairs. When asked by TODAY, the government ministries organising the hearings did not want to comment.

In a summary report of evidence released by the authorities on Friday, Dr Haciyakupoglu singled out a foreign state — not named in the report — which had waged information warfare against Singapore in recent months through news articles and social media, in its attempts to influence specific segments in the international sphere.

Dr Haciyakupoglu, whose research interests include disinformation campaigns online, online trust, and the interplay of the Internet, communication and authority, said that the use of mainstream and social media legitimises this particular state’s actions.

She also noted how Singapore and its “sensitive ministries” have been the target of cyber attacks of late.

In February 2017, the Defence Ministry (Mindef) had its first cyber-security breach when personal details of 850 national servicemen and staff members were stolen in what was described as a “targeted and carefully planned” cyber attack.

The breach of Mindef’s internal I-net system, which allows national servicemen and employees to conduct personal communications and go online, was executed remotely over the Internet.

Earlier in 2014, there was already a breach in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ IT system. The incident was made public only in 2015 but no details were given. In 2014 as well, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (now renamed as the Info-communications Media Development Authority) reported that more than 1,500 users’ log-in IDs and passwords for SingPass, which allows them to access government e-services, were potentially compromised and illegally accessed.

CIVILIANS IN DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS

Dr Haciyakupoglu warned that civilians in target countries are sometimes active participants in disinformation campaigns. This can happen when they circulate falsehoods or when they are part of a militia that acts in support of an attack mounted by a foreign state.

This approach allows the foreign “aggressor” states to orchestrate attacks remotely and avoid responsibility in the domestic and international arenas.

In a case study of countries “X” and “Y”, which were not named in the summary report for confidentiality, she said that country X embraces an unrestricted approach to warfare, including roping in the military and civilians in country Y, such as media professionals, businessmen, students and academics, in order to further its campaign.

Despite Y taking some countermeasures, X has thoroughly “penetrated and infiltrated” Y in terms of influencing opinions in various spheres, which include the education, military and business communities, for example. In executing information warfare, also known as influence operations, there is the deliberate use of information or propaganda to mislead, confuse and influence the choices and decisions that the targeted community or country makes.

In the same way, Singapore remains a vulnerable and attractive target, she argued.

Both she and Dr Cheong highlighted the presence of cyber armies in the region, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as a threat to Singapore.

Dr Cheong, an expert in homeland defence, strategic security, political violence and politics in the Middle East, warned that these cyber armies can easily be deployed against Singapore, either directly or as proxies for another country. He argued that Singapore is not yet fully prepared for such attacks that may be launched via information operations and the cyberspace.

Incidents could be created to generate distrust against highly trusted public institutions, he said, noting that some of these have already taken place. Aggressors may seek to weaken Singaporeans’ trust in public institutions, which will in turn undermine overall trust in the state, he added.

Dr Cheong even asked Singaporeans to be careful about the use of mobile phones which have been manufactured by companies based in some foreign states, because many of these firms are likely to have back-end access to foreign intelligence agencies.

Singapore must build both defensive and offensive measures to counter such attacks, he said, calling for substantial amendments to legislation to bolster the country’s arsenal against falsehoods.

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa