Singapore plan to use monitoring app on students' computers sparks privacy fears


FILE PHOTO: Students wearing protective face masks read in class at Yio Chu Kang Secondary School, as schools reopen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A Singapore government scheme to ensure children have access to computers for home learning has raised privacy concerns over monitoring software installed on the devices.

The scheme, accelerated by the closure of schools last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, offers subsidies to ensure all secondary school students will have access to computers by the end of 2021.

The government said in December that the computers must 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.

"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," Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday.

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.

(Reporting by Chen Lin; Editing by John Geddie and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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