Monday, August 07, 2006

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? - Privacy in a Police State

I’ve been working on this piece for quite sometime. Never got around to completing it ‘cos I had to look for all the raw information, sources, etc, etc. After all, I’m just an average citizen. Not some researcher or academic. Citizen journalist?? Maybe. Anyway, that’s not the point here.

As I was saying, I finally got around to completing this piece after reading a recent Straits Times report “Green light for portable phone numbers”. The report was about the IDA’s decision to allow mobile phone users to keep their existing numbers while switching service providers. But what got my attention in the report was this paragraph which said “The telcos may also have to pay fees to access a centralised database of phone numbers. By January, the IDA will appoint a firm to set up and run this database, estimated to cost about $5 million.” Especially those phrases in bold.

Two things sprang to mind when i read this report and an earlier Straits Times report Hundreds more cameras on streets to bolster security. One was the phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?" which is Latin for "Who guards the guardians?". The second was the recent incident during the elections with regards to the minority candidates certificate.

Of course, the local media being what it is, will not raise the issue of Who guards the guardians? which i will get to after you read the May 22 report....

Hundreds more cameras on streets to bolster security

Apart from a check against terrorism, new CCTV schemes are aimed at crime,traffic problems

by Goh Chin Lian, May 22, 2006, The Straits Times

HUNDREDS of new electronic eyes will be watching the streets of Singapore, under three new police and transport authority projects to be completed by next year.

The Land Transport Authority will install closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras to monitor 67 traffic junctions and the Singapore Police Force will put up another 91 in the Raffles City area, where the International Monetary Fund and World Bank conferences will be held in September.

The third project, also by the police, will link traffic cameras to a new system at police headquarters that could eventually be smart enough to spot unlawful and suspicious acts, from theft to a person planting a hidden explosive. The cameras will also record events, allowing the authorities to review street scenes for security checks, in the event of, say, a terrorist attack, as was the case in the London subway bombings in July last year.

Details of the three projects were spelt out in government tender documents obtained by The Straits Times.

The new moves follow the success police have had in reducing crime in CCTV-monitored areas such as Boat Quay, Newton Hawker Centre, Little India and Geylang. Buses and trains here could be next to have electronic eyes, going by the experience of several major cities like London, where the network of 500,000 cameras helped track down perpetrators of the terror attacks.

For now, the LTA’s new cameras will monitor traffic junctions in the northern and eastern parts of Singapore, as well as on the outer ring of roads that bypass the city, the LTA told The Straits Times. This includes a stretch of the Central Expressway from Moulmein Road to Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, parts of Upper Serangoon Road, as well as streets in Tampines and Bedok.

The cameras, to be installed by the third quarter of next year, will complement cameras in place at 109 junctions, mostly within the Central Business District and roads close to the city.Traffic controllers at a remote centre in River Valley Road use the cameras to monitor and keep traffic moving smoothly.

Since last August, they have also used the cameras - which can zoom in on a vehicle’s licence plate - to police motorists who park illegally, wait along major roads or in the yellow boxes. They have caught more than 400 motorists with the cameras so far at three hot spots - Orchard Link, Bideford Road and Woodlands Centre Road. These cameras, as well as those overlooking expressways, will be linked wirelessly to police headquarters.

This is part of a new video management system that aims to integrate the CCTV systems of the MRT, airports, checkpoints and key buildings, according to police tender documents calling for contractors to install the systems. The police intend to have a system smart enough to detect abnormal events, including loitering vehicles and suspicious gatherings. They also want it to guard against false alarms, such as adapting to changes in lighting and the cyclical movements of water fountains and escalators. And alarms are expected to sound as soon as a suspicious person leaves behind a parcel and disappears, to allow authorities to pre-empt any explosion.

Police also hope the system will link images from cameras mounted on police vehicles or portable outposts to the central police system.

The new cameras at the Raffles City area will be mounted mostly on lamp posts or new poles. The area to be monitored includes Suntec City, Marina Promenade, Ritz-Carlton, Fullerton Hotel and One Fullerton. Also on the list are the Golden Mile Complex taxi stand at Beach Road, the back lanes of Circular Road and Lorong Telok near Boat Quay, and towards Club Momo from Solomon Street. The existing CCTV systems at Boat Quay and Little India will also be integrated with the Raffles City network so it can be easily monitored by the surveillance operators.
I recall reading the Latin phrase in James Gomez’s book titled Internet Politics: Surveillance & Intimidation in Singapore which was published in 2002. You don’t really find books on such topics being published often in Singapore by a Singaporean author. In Chapter 3 of the book, titled The Modern Police State, it explains why Singapore under the ruling party can be understood as a police state. Here are some excerpts:
“The existence of “the police”, a separate force designed entirely for enforcing the criminal law, is a product of modern urban society. The establishment of a metropolitan police force in London in 1829 is usually seen as the single most important event in this development. The existence of a police force, by its very nature, raises several related political issues. The oldest is summed up by the Latin question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (Who guards the guardians?). That is, given the capacities and force of arms which the police must have to do their job, to whom are they accountable and how can they be prevented from abusing their position.”

“A police state is one in which the executive uses the police and other instruments of the state from the bureaucracy, judiciary and other agencies and tools at its disposal to monitor and control civil and political activities of its citizens and others on its territory and even beyond. The police are used to limit civil and political liberties in accordance with legislation introduced by the ruling regime. Such policing goes beyond politics and intrudes also into economics and social life.”

“What characterises Singapore’s political system is the constant query, worry and anxiety among the majority of the citizens, foreigners and observers that individuals and groups will get into trouble with the police and the political authorities for challenging the political status quo. Such anxiety is based on repeated examples of political challengers consistently being found guilty of contravening the system of tight and restrictive laws that govern people in the city-state.”

“In Singapore, those who show the potential for political action against the ruling regime are treated as possible threats to the state and are heavily monitored and policed. It is a system where resistance to the ruling party is controlled by policing political opponents using very restrictive legislation. Laws are constantly modified whenever space is found for political expression, mobilisation and action. The ruling party’s domination of parliament allows for the passage of new laws as well as continual amendment of the constitution so that the legal environment can be constantly revised to serve the ruling party’s needs.”
I couldn’t have said it more eloquently. A major concern is an individual’s privacy in a police state. I’m all for number portability & efforts to enhance our safety and security. At the same time, given the nature of our political system and the immense power the ruling party wields, how can we be sure that the system will not be misused or abused by those who are managing it? Who are they accountable to? Where are the checks? The safeguards? Do we take the PAP government’s word for it that it won’t be misused or abused and how can we be sure of that?

This brings me to the incident i mentioned at the beginning. The ruling party and the local media went stir-crazy over a trivial incident involving Gomez. (The link to an article by yawning bread will fill you in on what the incident was all about) Instead, i’ll cut to the chase.

Singapore’s Elections Department released CCTV footage and voice recordings of Gomez’s interactions with department staff. According to the department, they did so “in order to leave no doubt about the integrity of the electoral process”.

The incident was over the submission of a form. Initially, Gomez said he did submit the form. Later on, he realised his oversight and apologised in front of a crowd of thousands at a rally. Mind you, this was not CCTV footage of the London subway bombings or even a bank heist!But the ruling party went berserk with conspiracy theories with the local media all over it. Furthermore, all this during the 9 day campaigning period allowed for the general election. I believe a statement from the department would have sufficed because the media would surely have run the story as they were salivating over it since it first broke!

The Elections department is not an independent entity as one would expect if it was an Independent Elections Commission. Instead, the department is under the Prime Minister’s Office. To be more specific, its directly under the charge of the Minister for Home Affairs. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs who is also the Deputy Prime Minister are from the ruling party.

If the CCTV can be used in such a manner over a trivial incident, one can imagine how it can be misused or abused. As I’ve said before, i’m all for efforts to allow technology to benefit consumers or protect the people and society. At the same time, there needs to be an independent mechanism to guard the guardians as well so that the system will not be abused and used to secure the ruling party’s hold on power.

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