An initial perspective on domestic mass electronic surveillance in Malaysia

The Snowden disclosures brought into public consciousness the issue of domestic mass surveillance. This has triggered debate throughout the developed world, less so in the developing world.

Curious about current perceptions on this issue in Malaysia, I posted a question to the Big Data Malaysia discussion group:

People in this group may well be regarded as Big Data experts by their friends and family, and I’m curious… are you hearing any concern about potential mass electronic surveillance* in Malaysia?

(*I mean the sort of thing brought to light by the Snowden disclosures.)

The following is not my personal opinion, rather it is my personal summary of opinions provided on the above-mentioned discussion thread. There were 39 comments in response. I coded, categorized, and weighted (by likes) each comment to produce the following summary. It is unavoidably subjective, but hopefully it’s not too far off from a useful snapshot of the opinion of the members of Big Data Malaysia on the subject of mass electronic surveillance in Malaysia.

Public Awareness

In late 2013 it came to light that foreign powers may have been conducting electronic surveillance on Malaysia, which the local press labelled “espionage”. The opposition reacted loudly and the Federal government protested in a more measured way.

But there’s no evidence of local political leaders having a public opinion on domestic mass electronic surveillance.

It would appear that the issue does not enjoy widespread public awareness in Malaysia. Even amongst those who are aware of the issue, there’s a lack of evidence of committed use of countermeasures such as VPN.

Capability

There is a lot of dispute on whether or not the relevant government apparatus have the technical capability to conduct such activities, with speculation including:

  • they lack the capability
  • some of it is actually not technically very hard; they can do it
  • they are already doing it (e.g. monitoring unencrypted IP traffic)
  • they can outsource the work (e.g. FinFisher)

The legal capability seems to be reinforced by recent amendments to the SOSMA 2012 legislation.

Trust

It is perceived that such capabilities would be aligned with the interests of the government (distinct from the interests of the Rakyat). This is underscored by the ruling party’s exceptional ~60 year uninterrupted control of democratic power.

There are signs that some citizens trust the government enough to be willing to surrender privacy, but there are clearly those who disagree with this.

A discussion on national security vs civil liberties may be an appropriate way to frame the issue, but as it stands there is not enough mainstream traction to drive the discussion forward.

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