Economics Politics & government Society

[2625] AES, privacy and perverse incentive

The implementation of the Automatic Enforcement System (AES) is proving to be so controversial that even federal backbenchers are joining the federal opposition in criticizing the system.

For the uninitiated, the AES is a privately-financed and operated system of speed traps under the purview of the Road Transport Department (JPJ). It has two functions: catch those who drive above the speed limit and those who beat the red light. The overarching aim is to reduce road accidents.

There are strong opinions on the matter, and at times, it appears that there is no middle ground. As for me, I am of two minds about the matter.

I can be supportive of the AES because, frankly, there are assholes on the roads. They drive as if the roads are racetracks. Many of them disrespect the traffic lights. They, as some would say in Malay, think that their fathers owned the road.

These drivers endanger others’ life and there have been times when they caused me unnecessary distress. Though it is unbecoming of me, there were times when I wished they would meet with an accident. Pain is a great disincentive and these drivers need some serious disincentive. Maybe, like losing a limb. Or two.

But such pain can be barbaric and so, the next best thing is to hit them in their pockets. For those driving Ferraris, a Hummer financed by a tycoon and the likes, the AES is unlikely to be of any deterrent. If you think a maximum of RM300 fine can deter the elites from becoming a road menace, then I do have something to sell to you.

Philosophically, the libertarian in me is always skeptical of cameras in public space, either for crime fighting or as speed traps. It is a concern for privacy and in an environment when I distrust the government with my private data, especially with an illiberal government in power, having these cameras all over the public space allows the government, or even private entities, to track me. Whatever the guarantee of privacy, words are words and it is open to abuse. How do I know, for instance, that the AES cameras will be used purely for traffic purposes?

I just do not.

There is, of course, an argument that in this age of social media, the concern about privacy with respect to cameras in public spaces is really overblown. A large chunk of our lives is already available online. Nevertheless, there are things on social media, and there are things that are not. Cameras in public space have the capability of revealing things that are not on social media, among other things. There is such a thing called privacy, especially to a libertarian like me.

The other part that raises my opposition is economics. Specifically, the incentive structure of AES is flawed. There is a clear case of perverse incentive. It creates a conflict of interest among the companies.

The private companies operate the AES and they generate revenue from paid traffic tickets. There is a clear profit motive here. The profit motive itself is not the problem.

The problem comes when one considers the fact that the process of taking the pictures is managed by the companies.

With that, the AES operators face the incentive to tweak the violation benchmarks regardless of the speed limits sanctioned by the authorities. The operators can increase their revenue by dishonestly lowering the benchmark for fines. In other words, there is an incentive for the companies to cheat commuters. There is a risk that these companies will cheat us.

This basically negates a pro-AES argument out there that sounds like this: if you do not commit an offence, the companies get no money. As I have explained, there is a risk that the companies do make money even when there is no offence committed.

This can be addressed by having an independent, incorruptible body to oversee the system. This can be the government because the government (a clean one at that) can be a counterweight to the profit-motive. The independent overseer needs to ensure there is no cheating done by the operators of the AES.

This is already in place in a way. All cameras will be calibrated every eight months by SIRIM, which one assumes to be an independent party. Still, something can happen between two calibration sessions. After all, the two private companies do operate and maintain the cameras on behalf of JPJ. They have access to the cameras all the times.

The alternative which can make the AES more palatable incentive-wise is to change the incentive structure. In my humble opinion, the companies should not be paid according to the number of fines paid. The payoff should not be pegged to the number of motorists caught. Instead, these companies should be paid a fixed regular fee from the relevant authority. This will make the incentive to cheat go away.

The problem with this is that the government may have to go back on its word and break the contracts signed. But hey, what else is new?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on November 8 2012.