Simply No to SimplyGo

(image from here)

On 10 January, the Land Transport Authority announced that from 1 June, the SimplyGo public transportation system will replace the older EZLink payment cards and Nets Flashpay. The following day, a flood of complaints exposed SimplyGo’s flaws.

Fare readers do not display charges, forcing users to consult the SimplyGo app to track their expenses. Charges are not tracked in real time, so transactions could take 10 – 15 minutes or even longer to post on the app. This in turn makes it hard to tell what went wrong when a fare reader registers an error when a user taps his card. The older generation, less well-versed with technology, may find it difficult to navigate the SimplyGo app on a smartphone.

Much has been said online about these issues. While significant, they are secondary, and can be fixed in time. There is another, more fundamental, issue that is not being addressed. An issue that is drowned out by the deluge of complaints. That issue rose to prominence over the past two years, and yet remains in Singapore’s blind spot.

Freedom to travel.

Singapore is highly dependent on an efficient public transportation system. In 2022, Singapore clocked an average of 6.39 million daily rides on buses, the MRT and the LRT system—the public transport systems that use contactless payment. That is greater than Singapore’s population of 5.91 million. Cars and taxis are expensive in Singapore; to travel long distances, you need public transport.

To sign up for SimplyGo, the user must register his mobile phone number. In Singapore, your mobile number is tied to your ID. This means the system knows who owns the account.

A SimplyGo user can link his bank account or his credit or debit card to make payments. When he does, the system will have his financial information, and confirmation of his identity.

The system tracks travel expenditures and travel history. This allows the system to build the user’s pattern of life. It will know where he goes, who he visits, how frequently he travels and how much he spends on transport. It will also be able to track movement activities outside this pattern of life, such as when he goes to the airport to travel overseas.

In the future, the SimplyGo platform can enable a wider range of functions than EZlink, such as a maximum daily fare cap.

Let’s take a trip to a hypothetical feature, one in which all the bugs in SimplyGo have been ironed out and EZlink eliminated—but the SimplyGo feature set remains. In this future, SimplyGo is linked to the user’s SingPass, the national digital ID, as well as his bank details. All cash payment methods are eliminated, leaving contactless digital payment as the only way to make payments.

If you say or do anything that the government disapproves of, they can set your maximum daily fare cap to $0.00. Just like that, you can’t use the public transportation system at all.

If the government believes that you are friends or family with ‘troublemakers’, then they can do the same to you.

If the government decides you haven’t earned the right to travel overseas, then they can turn off your ability to travel to any port of entry and exit.

During the pandemic, the so-called ‘experts’ called for a ban on the unvaccinated from using public transportation. Italy did just that. The sheer scale of the public transport network makes that impractical to enforce in Singapore. But with a SimplyGo system tied to the national ID system, all the government has to do is to set the fare cap of the unvaccinated to $0.00.

This isn’t limited to vaccines either. If your registered address is in an Opposition ward, the government can restrict or turn off your SimplyGo. If you post a complaint about SimplyGo on Facebook, then SimplyGo can turn off your account too. Do anything against the system and the system will have the power to punish you.

Apologists will claim that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of. Let’s flip this around: Why does the government need this power?

The essence of government is power. The power to force people into compliance with its will. Such power is dangerous, and thus must be limited to what is no more than necessary. This hypothetical SimplyGo gives the government the power to track and control the movements of every single person in Singapore. Such power means that the government views every single person as a potential threat.

Is this power necessary? And can you guarantee that you will forever be on the right side of the authorities?

Other apologists will say that SimplyGo can’t do this now, so there is nothing to worry about. This argument is short-sighted. There is nothing stopping the authorities from upgrading SimplyGo to incorporate these features in the next 2 to 3 years.

During the 2015 General Elections, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong claimed that there was no need to increase the Goods and Services Tax. In 2018, the government announced it will increase the GST. From 2022 to 2024, the government increased GST from 7% to 9%.

In the same fashion, the government may say it won’t expand SimplyGo now, but there is nothing stopping it from doing so later. The infrastructure already exists. The technological capability already exists. It is only a question of whether—or when—the government will use SimplyGo as another tool of control.

There is only one way to ensure that the government cannot use public transport against the people, and that is to design the system from the ground-up to protect privacy and liberty. Such a system will feature the following:

  • A physical card will be the centrepiece of the system, which can be topped up with cash. The card is not linked to the user’s ID.
  • Fare readers will display fares and remaining stored value. There is no need to consult an app to track your expenses.
  • Apps and links to banks and cards are optional. A user can use the card without ever having to download an app or go through a financial institution.
  • No tracking of travel and transaction history that can be linked to the user.
  • No daily fare cap, or any other mechanism that can restrict the user’s ability to travel

Funny enough, we already have this system. The 23-year-old EZlink, which has been around for so long that the bugs have been ironed out and everyone knows how it works. There is absolutely nothing wrong with EZlink.

So why force the switch to SimplyGo?

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