Saturday, February 4, 2012

Singapore Police Force (SPF) computer forensics detectives zero in on Internet hoaxes; many brought to justice after rigorous police investigations

Sunday Times, 29 January 2012: As a matter of interest, look at how two politicians respond to net rumours about their private lives...

Spreading false information about the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or any national security issue may create an Internet sensation. It could also land the author(s) in jail.

Anyone found guilty of transmitting a false or fabricated message could be jailed for three years and fined.

This little-known piece of legislation is not without teeth as computer forensics sleuths with the Singapore Police Force (SPF) have made many hoaxers answer for their actions. In one case, a bomb hoax was traced all the way to an Internet cafe in Bangkok - the man was arrested upon arrival in Singapore and hauled to court.

It is a penalty that a 24-year-old engineer found out the hard way after police raided his Bedok Reservoir flat in May last year. The man is suspected of being behind a web hoax posted on the net forum Hardwarezone that claimed a Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 fighter jet had crashed.

The Straits Times 27 May 2011

Alerted by a member of the public, SPF computer forensics detectives were ordered to find the author of the hoax after it went viral around noon on 26 May 2011. The team wrapped up its search by dinnertime.

At 8pm that night, police detectives arrived at his doorstep with an arrest warrant. His home was raided and personal belongings searched for evidence. Detectives arrested the person and seized the desktop computer thought to have been used to post the hoax.

More recently, netizens were alarmed by a posting which claimed an SAF full-time National Serviceman (NSF) had died in a training accident (please see first image, text is readable when you zoom in "+" on the image).

It went viral - which is not surprising. Even for this blog, postings on SAF training safety, NS defaulters and anything on SAF scenarios for war usually result in a spike in unique page views/day, according to the web tracking software that analyses visits to this site.

The denial by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) killed the hoax and attention faded away almost as quickly as it began. Again, not surprising as netizens have more distractions and websites to visit than free time.

Odds are, there will be skeptics who don't buy MINDEF's explanation. There will always be such people around. This brings to mind the TV news report of certain people denying that OBL had been killed even after reports to the contrary by the US Department of Defense.

Trust established between MINDEF/SAF and the citizen's army is a fragile one. People should never take for granted the amount of effort needed to win that trust - and then win it again - as public perceptions are constantly assaulted by assorted points of views. Not all POVs are well meaning or have Singapore's interest at heart.

Indeed, there are indications foreign citizens regularly plant flame bait on news sites that Singaporeans visit just to arouse negative sentiments and watch Singaporeans tear one another apart. 

MINDEF's handling of the training incident in Thailand in May 2010 is a classic example of how things should not be done. Unless the defence eco-system institutionalises such cases, younger MINDEF/SAF staff officers may, in time to come, not even know the case existed and repeat the misjudgement. Click here to read MINDEF's letter on shooting incident in Thailand.

Laws that deal with net hoaxes must be backed by a mechanism to bring people who started hoaxes to justice.

Defence authorities do not always have the monopoly on how defence information is released. My rule of engagement (ROE) is simple: the moment an SAF war machine crosses the fenceline of an SAF camp onto a public road/open sea/sky, the war machine is fair game for military nuts.

This ROE guided this posting on 30 September 2010. The flash message could have gone out faster but time was needed to verify information that trickled in to build an appreciation of situation. The risk of a miscomm was managed by having a network of military nuts who can report concisely what they see and understand the difference between observation and opinion. This network of plane spotters is credited for two scoops published by the 90 cents newspaper - the 1 April 2005 story on the A-4 Skyhawk last flight (see here) and the airspace intrusion by the Cessna seaplane. Ironically, after all the effort, some readers thought the 1 April Skyhawk story was an April Fool hoax. Please read more about plane spotters here.

Singaporeans need to realise that there is nothing funny about defence and security-related hoaxes.

At a social level, net mischief causes unnecessary anxiety among families and needless suspicion leveled against MINDEF/SAF or the SPF or civil defence, as the case may be. 

Hoaxes also corrode commitment to defence and could, if MINDEF/SAF is unwary, be used as a tool by foreign psywar elements to whittle away C2D. This is why the police and MINDEF/SAF must be able to given the resources to track down hoax authors. It is one thing to bring a 20-something mischief maker to justice for the nonsense he bangs out on his keyboard. But authorities need assurance that net hoaxes are not part of a sinister, long-term attempt to chip away at public support for national security. Unless computer forensics teams are built up, trained and supported to execute the work they do, we may be none the wiser.

The author(s) behind such hoaxes may get a kick out of seeing their handiwork go viral. But they should also know that computer sleuths who earn their pay with the SPF or MINDEF's Military Security Department are good at what they do.

This is why I never bothered starting an anonymous blog: because MSD would have found out who was behind it in pretty quick time.


Anonymous said...

The catch of course, is that this slips easily into the trap of "no reporting of MRT breakdowns until there is an official press release" or "no reporting of CPIB investigations until the ministerial salary lecture is over".

David Boey said...

Hi stngiam,
Good observation. This is why the background to stories on the Apache crash, A-4 last flight and Cessna seaplane intrusion are discussed here.

re: SMRT breakdowns. I believe Hossan Leong got ticked off for his comment on radio about the service disruption before word was officially released.

So yeah, it's a tricky line to tread.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

Those who consciously spreads rumors should be dealt, period.
We do not need anyone undermining our society/peace/security.

This article also points out that our Singapore Police Force (SPF) computer forensics detectives has the capability to track down most, if not all, if they chose to.

Let's hope that they can also use this capability when some commoners need such help, e.g. like tracking love ones who are missing and suddenly sends you a mail (or maybe an idiotic prank) etc.