Politics & government

[2783] Public officials do not deserve privacy

Privacy very is important to me. It is important not just in the practical sense but also as a matter of principle with the context that I am a libertarian. Even in the internet age when doxing and hacking are almost normal and easily done, surveillance and privacy breaches are still a concern.

Now, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal involves a lot of violations of individual privacy. Details of individuals’ bank accounts have been leaked out. Yet, I do not take it as violation in the libertarian sense.

Does this mean I am applying double standard in this case?


So, why does the privacy for these individuals weigh less than that of others’?

These individuals — public official and their close relatives — do not deserve the typical privacy protection granted to the common men and women because they are in power. They are public officials. The higher up they are on the echelon of power, the less protection they deserve and the greater scrutiny the they should come under.

If they were accorded the same protection, it would create great opportunity for corruption and makes it harder to detect actual cases of corruption. For a clean government to exist, power must always survive skepticism. And so too for men and women holding public offices.

In fact, it should be the practice for public officials to declare their income and wealth to the public in the first place to reduce the opportunity for corruption. That very practice refuses them the right to privacy as far as income and wealth are concerned.

But in Malaysia, we do not have that declaration system and the public cannot access existing incomplete, inadequate asset declaration records. And this doubly means that these individuals of power do not deserve privacy that they are demanding.

Truly, leaks targeting 1MDB and others in power are now the only means for the public to ascertain the various allegations of corruption. These allegations are no more about sensationalist tabloid gossips. They are a matter of state administration and corruption.

Worse, sadly, the leaks have more credibility than most Malaysian institutions. I hold that it is these leaks that are forcing our institutions to investigate 1MDB finally. Without the leaks, these institutions compromised as they are, would have done nothing. The leakers, whoever they are, are providing public service.

This leads to another point. Our institutions suffer from trust deficit. Years of abuse by the government have robbed our institutions from the neutrality and the credibility they need to do their job.

And on top that, there is also conflict of interest just by the way our institutions are designed. In the case of 1MDB specifically, the attorney general who is leading the investigation suffers from conflict of interest. The AG office is both the public prosecutor and the legal counsel for the government. Since the AG office itself is under the Prime Minister’s Department, I fear the political reality means the AG will act more of a legal counsel to the government than as a reliable public prosecutor.

If the lack of very public asset declaration practice, trust deficit and conflict of interest has yet to convince you why individuals of power (public officials and their close relatives) do not deserve the typical privacy protection, then perhaps the awkwardness of them using the privacy laws to prosecute the leakers and prevent the public from finding out if there is indeed has been any wrongdoing.

At the very least, there is a very strong suspicion of abuse in 1MDB, a government-linked company. Any individual benefiting from the abuse deserves no privacy protection. They, instead of the leakers, should face the full force of the law instead.

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.


[2386] The cat man at the Opera

I took me awhile to decide whether I should post this photo up.

I snapped it back in January this year when I was lingering in Paris for a number of weeks, possibly on a painful but necessary fool’s errand. I had to do it in order to move on.

So, this is five months later.

The issue has always been about privacy. I faced a similar problem with a picture of a dancer in Sydney once. That problem was easily solved once I realized that it had public performance in the equation: when it is a public event, the question of privacy vanishes. And so, I posted up the photo of the dancer with clear conscience.

There was no performance in front of the Opera in Paris. The man was looking for a job if I understood the sign properly. Or he was begging. I did not ask his permission to shoot his picture.

Maybe, because his face is unseen or reasonably unidentifiable, that somehow affects his privacy less.

I hope so.

I want to up this picture up because I like it. I like that message that I see in it. That however is not enough to shut my conscience up. I am planning to sleep over it and then forget about it until some complication arises in the future. I will deal with it there and then.

Until then, here is what I like about the picture: the edifice provides a contrast to the man, and the man is alone with his cat. Somehow, there is something deep about that juxtaposition. Somehow, hundreds of years of history led to the suffering of this man. To the man, somehow, history does not matter. Ominously, only today matters.

There is something tragic about it all.

Liberty Society

[1515] Of boogeyman stay away. We have CCTVs!

With two high-profile kidnapping cases along with perception of high crime rate, the Malaysian authority is advocating mass installation of closed circuit TV to fight crime. Advocates of CCTVs are convinced that the device will help in bringing crime rate down. While that may be so — there are debates on whether presence of CCTVs reduces or merely displaces crime — I am not too keen on the plan. Given authority’s reputation in disrespecting individual liberty, I fear that the authority will misuse the cameras installed in public spaces for other purposes.

I would imagine that self-proclaimed moral police would be the first to celebrate mass installation of CCTVs. With it, they could more effectively enforce their moral standard on others. No more would the moral police as well as vigilantes need to make rounds to catch those that reject certain moral standard. It happened before and it will happen again if the plan to install CCTVs in public face goes through.

With CCTVs sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, gone would be the days when one could sit on the bench alone to savor the evening. Deep in one’s heart, there is knowledge that somebody is watching him diligently, trying to catch the smallest of mistakes in the name of some questionable order.

The religious right would like to believe that god watches each one of us. It maybe absurd but with CCTVs everywhere, that would not be too absurd at all anymore. God is now equipped with cameras and lots of them. God now is omnipresent, wherever CCTV is available.

God is a dictator and mortal dictators love to be gods. These gods employ dogs to do their biddings and this has been true for the longest time. Gods want to know everything that private citizens do for they are jealous. While it was hard to do so in the past, cameras CCTV cameras lift godly burden off the gods.

Unchecked conflict of interest occurs widely in our government. We have seen how public fund is being used to tighten the incumbents’ grip on power without the slightest of shame. Extrapolating that trend, it is not at all too remote for the government to misuse the CCTVs for purposes other than fighting crime like theft or murder. The facilities could be use to fight “crime” such as practicing liberty.

From a terminal connected to a wide network of CCTVs, the state would be able to keep an eye anybody for whatever reasons, be it a tyrant scheming to force all into obedience or simply peeping-tom the dog running his own errands while the gods sleep soundly in their thrones far abovenaway from the wretched earth.

But surely, they would not do that. CCTVs are for fighting crime!

And maybe my liberty should be sacrifice for Sharlinie and in honor of Nurin. How selfish of me to not to sacrifice my liberty for the two children. Never mind that the parents made mistakes that cost them their children. Never mind that a lot more parents never learn from that mistakes and when somebody points out that they need to change, they fiercely bark back at that somebody. Never mind that. Forgive me. It is now the responsibility of the police, the state, to keep children safe, not parents anymore. Forgive me to not noticing that changing zeitgeist. I suppose personal responsibility is outdated.

Maybe we need the CCTVs after all. Maybe, we need the gods to install those CCTVs in our bedroom to protect us from the monsters that lurk under our beds, outside our windows at night. We need to be assured that somebody is watching us, keeping us safe all the time so that we could sleep well at night, away from the boogeyman.

Or maybe just for those whom are too scared to have personal responsibility.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

A version of this article was first published at Bolehland.

Liberty Politics & government

[1496] Of the only crime here is intrusion of privacy

The 42nd President of the United States of America faced impeachment because he lied about his sexual relationship with an acquaintance while 43rd President escapes any chance of impeachment in office despite misleading the public into going to war. Absurd? If that is so, then the episode surrounding Chua Soi Lek that led to his resignation is doubly absurd.

I honestly believe that the Malaysian society has quite considerable length to go if liberty is our benchmark. The treatment that Mr. Chua receives from many quarters proves just that. Instead of looking for the intruders of privacy, the victim is being crucified. It is as if people are celebrating the peeping toms for wrongfully shaming an individual.

What the former minister had was consensual sex. Despite being a public figure, he, like all of us, has a private life. His conduct may be deplorable but what he does with his private life is definitely none of our business, just as what you do with your private life is none of my business.

Perhaps, he should resign, along with other politicians that lead this country. The reason for resignation however must be something that relate to the public sphere, like failed policies, misuse of public fund or sheer incompetence.

The only crime here is the violation of privacy and the intrusion positively cannot be tolerated. The perpetrators must be apprehended and accordingly punished because that is the only right thing to do.