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Mutual trust crucial for cross-border data transfers, says Singapore’s Information Minister

S Iswaran, Singapore Communication and Information Minister

Cross-border data transfers can only occur if there is mutual trust between nations, the Singaporean Minister of Communications and Information, and Cybersecurity S. Iswaran said on Tuesday, suggesting that data localisation norms indicate lack of mutual trust. “To foster that trust, countries must put in place laws and common standards to ensure that there are safeguards for the protection of cross border data flows,” he said at CyFy, the cybersecurity conference hosted by the Observer Research Foundation.

“There’s much potential for Singapore to work together with India and other countries to maximise the value of data and enable better outcomes for our businesses, and consumers,” Iswaran said. However, it remains doubtful whether India will meet Singapore’s data adequacy requirements since India requires localisation of financial data and other sensitive personal data under its different enacted and draft policies.

Iswaran is the second communications minister at CyFy to call for free cross-border flows of data with appropriate mutual norms to safeguard them. On Monday, Finnish Minister of Transport and Communication Timo Harakka had said that data should be stored globally, not locally, and that “there are no shortcuts to data adequacy”.

‘Cross-border data flows are essential to global digital economy’

“Data is the foundation of the global digital economy and facilitating cross border data flows will be key to its continued growth,” Iswaran said. To that end, Singapore has an international network of digital economy agreements (DEA) with “like-minded” nations such as New Zealand, Chile and Australia, and is in talks with South Korea. These agreements, Iswaran said, “build interoperable digital systems and frameworks for safe data flows and electronic transactions”.

Singapore has also concluded a memorandum of intent with the International Chamber of Commerce, and private companies “to adopt open and neutral frameworks like TradeTrust for digitalising trade documents such as e-bills of lading [or shipment receipts]”, he said. TradeTrust uses blockchain to store international trade documents.

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Iswaran said that adequacy regulations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) “provide assurance that personal data transferred overseas is handled with care and used only for legitimate purposes”. This echoes submissions by BSA, the global software alliance, and the Data Security Council of India (DSCI) on the Indian Personal Data Protection Bill. Both argued that data localisation requirements should be replaced with compatibility with existing adequacy frameworks such as the CBPR and EU’s standard contractual clauses.

Singaporean law supports cross-border data flows

Under Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act, data can be transferred outside the sovereign city-state if the data is accorded comparable standard of protection (called “data adequacy”). This data adequacy requirement exists only for entities that determine the purpose of processing, not for data processors that process data on behalf of another entity.

Singapore has historically opposed data localisation. In February, Singapore’s central bank Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the US Treasury had issued a joint statement that said that free flow of data across borders is “critical to financial sector development”. In 2018, MAS’s chief Ravi Menon had said, “We need more data connectivity, and less data localisation. This is a serious risk.” He, too, had said that the world needs “common data standards across countries so data can flow freely in an environment of trust and security”.

‘Singapore leveraged its existing digital infrastructure during COVID-19’

Iswaran, almost echoing India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, said that “accelerated digital adoption” is a “silver lining of the pandemic”. He further said that “digital technology is a critical enabler of our pandemic response and post-pandemic recovery”. A combination of Singapore’s high household penetration rate, digital infrastructure, pre-existing emphasis on digital skills and literacy were “critical” in the country’s pandemic response, Iswaran said.

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