Singapore should adopt a privacy rights law, argued an op-ed in the Straits Times about a week ago. I’m sorry I forgot who penned it and now I can’t find a copy online. I remember however, that I agreed with the thrust of the article. [Update 9 June 2010: A reader has found the article for me. It is Straits Times, 31 May 2010, Seen and hurt. Thanks.]
This came in the wake of the furore over cameras installed in the ceiling of toilets and showers of a foreign workers’ dormitory, reported by the same newspaper on 15 April 2010.
It is common for foreign worker dormitory operators to install closed-circuit television cameras at the entrances to their buildings and in other common areas, to monitor any shenanigans involving the residents.
But one operator in Jurong West has gone a step further and installed two cameras on the ceiling of the common toilet, which houses shower and toilet stalls, urinals, and a row of wash basins.
Lockson Hydraulics, which runs the dormitory and is also a scaffolding company, said the cameras – part of a network of 24 electronic eyes on the premises – were put up to deter water wastage after its water bills soared and repeated calls to its residents to save water went unheeded.
But the presence of the cameras has raised the ire of some workers and welfare groups, who complain that the invasion of workers’ privacy has gone too far.
— Straits Times, 15 April 2010, Cameras in dorm toilet spark outcry
(You can see the full story at migrantworkerssingapore.blogspot.com)
I don’t intend here to rehash the same points covered by the op-ed. Instead, I hope to add to the discussion by taking a closer look at what we mean by “privacy”. It is all very easy for us to agree that invasion of privacy is hard to defend, but where would we draw the line?
The op-ed mentioned that it is perfectly legal in Singapore to buy and sell miniature cameras. How small the smallest are, I have no idea, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they are now the size of a peanut, since webcams barely bigger than a macadamia nut are already common.
One use that miniature cameras were put to recently can be seen in this TV grab from Malaysia’s TV3 channel. Although the commentary is in Malay, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the language; the visuals are what you’re interested in. It’s an exposé of two men-on-men massage parlours in Kuala Lumpur, followed by a news report of a police raid. Look carefully and you will notice that large segments of the video story came out of undercover filming e.g. at the 45th second, at 1’12” and a long three-minute stretch starting from around 1’50”. Clearly these segments were filmed before the raid took place.
Whether the reporter’s undercover visit had anything to do with the subsequent raid I don’t know.
TV3 took the trouble of blurring out faces, but the point to remember is that it filmed people without their consent in a setting that one would normally consider private.
(Some might argue that a massage parlour is not a private place, but a place that is open to public admission, albeit for a fee, and therefore the filming was not an invasion of privacy. But then one could use the same description of the communal toilets and showers in workers’ dormitories too.)
I’m absolutely sure there are some readers (especially in Malaysia) who are prepared to defend TV3’s use of hidden cameras. That defence rests on the public interest argument: Homosex is illegal, it is widely considered immoral, and it is against Islam, the state religion. It is in the public interest, they would argue, that it should be stamped out and the pursuit of this public interest amply justifies undercover reporting with hidden cameras. There is nothing special about invasive filming of massage parlours, they would argue; it being no different from the public interest justification for closed circuit cameras in airport terminals or the use of miniature lenses in an anti-drug sting operation.
Even Lockson Hydraulics, who installed the cameras in the workers’ dormitory, argued that the intent was not prurient but to spot those wasting water. Although they didn’t say so, is not conserving treated water a matter of public interest here?
What the TV3 example shows is that any discussion about privacy rights will need a more advanced understanding of “public interest”. Otherwise all sorts of abuses can still occur, especially when news organisations or individuals chase a sensational story. Sensationalism is always a function of salaciousness or majoritarian disapproval – if people only shrug, it will not be sensational. The problem with majoritarian disapproval is that it easily warps into the majority’s understanding of “public interest”, since they see themselves as the public whose interest needs to be protected.
This creates the conditions for vigilantes (including vigilante editors, producers and reporters) to go out, armed with miniature cameras, to expose whatever it is that contravenes their understanding of order in society, and be applauded for doing so.
If, on the other hand, you felt in your bones that what TV3 did was wrong, then you have to grapple with this defence of public interest. How would you define “public interest” in a way that would delegitimise what TV3 did?
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There is another thing about the Malaysian police raid that I found unsavoury; it was the involvement of the media throughout. This is surprisingly common in other countries, especially when the police want public acclaim for their actions.
In this example, you could see how closely the television cameras followed police officers from the scenes when they broke into a couple of massage cubicles, catching people naked.
I don’t know to what extent this also happens in Singapore, since I don’t watch much television, but I have a feeling our law enforcement (in non-political matters) is rather more professional. I certainly hope so.