When Peter Ho, the senior defense official, met with John Poindexter back in 2002 about the Total Information Awareness program, Poindexter suggested that Singapore would face a much easier time installing a big-data analysis system than he had in the United States, because Singapore’s privacy laws were so much more permissive. But Ho replied that the law wasn’t the only consideration. The public’s acceptance of government programs and policies was not absolute, particularly when it came to those that impinged on people’s rights and privileges.
It sounds like an accurate forecast. In this tiny laboratory of big-data mining, the experiment is yielding an unexpected result: The more time Singaporeans spend online, the more they read, the more they share their thoughts with each other and their government, the more they’ve come to realize that Singapore’s light-touch repression is not entirely normal among developed, democratic countries — and that their government is not infallible. To the extent that Singapore is a model for other countries to follow, it may tell them more about the limits of big data and that not every problem can be predicted.