Workers’ Party, data privacy, and the elephant in the room

Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang made a passing reference to Clementi in parliamentary remarks in connection with data confidentiality, and then hurried away. I wonder how many people hearing or reading his words went Huh?

However, if you had listened carefully, you’d know he was not referring to the suburb here in Singapore called Clementi. This was what Low actually said, as reported on the party’s website:

Posted on 10 March 2011

The modern lifestyle in Singapore has made Singaporeans more and more exposed. We are exposed not because we have less cloth on our clothes due to the hot weather, but because of the rapid changes in technology.

If you drive, whenever you drive past an ERP gantry, your vehicle’s IU number will be registered. When you stop at certain traffic junctions, there may be cameras capturing video footage. When you enter a carpark, the parking system again knows what time your car enter and leave the building. LTA is also reportedly looking at implementing a future ERP system using GPS technology.

If you travel by public transport, the contactless card system keeps tabs on the station or bus-stop you start and end your journey. When you make purchases using the same card, again the system keeps track of where and how much you spend.

When you go to certain sensitive areas or neighbourhood for lunch, your image may be captured by CCTV. At lunch, when your friend pulls out a smart phone to take photo of you and post on Facebook and Twitter, you can possibly find your own image shared to millions of Singaporeans online. When you sleep at work, the next thing you see could be a video of you snoring on YouTube.

This is how much these technologies have infiltrated our lives. However, Singapore online privacy laws are almost non-existent.

Recently, a young man in US by the name of Clementi, jumped to his death after unwittingly becoming the star of a video that was streamed online. Do we want to wait until a similar tragedy in Singapore before we start to consider online privacy laws?

I am of the view that it is time the Government introduce a privacy law in Singapore to protect the identity and privacy of individual Singaporeans. The law should also cover the use of personal data collected by various agencies and commercial institutions.

The aim was laudable and I would fully support it. Regarding data from Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) and public transport payment systems, I myself have long been concerned about government agencies abusing the information so collected, e.g. in tracking the movements of a political dissenter, or a journalist on his way to interview a whistle-blower.

Moreover, we have historical examples that have actually irked Singaporeans.  A few years ago, as I recall, a university passed an entire database of its students to the Social Development Unit, the state’s matchmaking agency, which then, annoyingly, contacted the students to interest them in its services. Another example can be found in the way lots of people have been inconvenienced by banks passing our phone numbers to their cross-selling units with the result that we keep getting calls about insurance or other financial products.

However, Low’s putting the focus on online exposure (as opposed to governmental and corporate abuse) may possibly weaken the argument because popular attitudes are in the process of change. The question of online privacy breaches by peers is not quite black-and-white whereas abuse of power is more stark.  Throughout human history, technological developments have always impacted culture and it is happening again right before our eyes.  A whole generation is growing up that doesn’t think it’s a big deal; they are growing a healthy thick skin instead of wringing their hands over the loss of privacy — at least in small ways. It may be both futile and unnecessary, from the point of view of the younger generation we call ‘digital natives’, to try to control images of ourselves appearing on the internet when they are not malicious.

Expending resources trying to police petty sharing may be like trying to push toothpaste back into it tube. Far better to focus on misuse of data by corporations and agencies with more power over us than our Facebook friends. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a law to cover invasion of privacy through release of data and images on the internet by peers, but we need to be sensitive to evolving culture, and be light-handed about it.

* * * * *

Next, what about Low’s mention of Clementi? This struck me as strange. Firstly, he dropped the name without explaining the incident. Any copy writer looking at those words would say that some background was desperately needed. Secondly, if one understands the case, it will also become obvious that the incident is about much, much more than data privacy.

What happened was this: On 19 September last year, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi (above), a student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, asked his roommate Dharun Ravi for some privacy in their shared dorm room. Dharun went to another student Molly Wei’s room and from there turned on the webcam in his own room. He then streamed live onto the internet Tyler’s sex romp with another guy.

Three days later, Tyler jumped off a bridge to his death.

Yes, as Low Thia Khiang mentioned, this is the kind of malicious invasion of privacy for which there should be laws. Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei have been charged accordingly and face up to five years’ jail.

Yet, there are similar incidents with different endings. Readers may be familiar with the videos that leaked of Hong Kong actor Edison Chen having sex with more than one woman, and of those of Malaysian politician Chua Soi Lek. Chua recovered from the scandal and is in fact currently party chief of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a component party in Malaysia’s government.

Then there’s Nazril Irham (right), better known as pretty boy Ariel, the lead singer of Indonesian pop band Peter Pan. He made videos of himself having his dick sucked and otherwise engaging in hot sex (with a female), and, as seems to be a recurrent theme, the videos leaked soon after. Last January, Nazril was convicted under Indonesia’s anti-pornography law and sentenced to three-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for making the video even though he was not responsible for leaking it. From what I’ve read, millions of young Indonesians think it was extremely unfair to haul Ariel to court. His popularity has not suffered at all from the incident.

So what’s the difference between Tyler’s case and these others? Why did Tyler think his exposure was not survivable? Obviously, the overall circumstances in each case are unique to it; nevertheless we cannot ignore the fact that being exposed for heterosex makes one a stud, but being exposed for homosex makes one a target of ridicule and prejudice.

Thus, over and above the question of invasion of privacy, a far bigger issue is that of prejudice and discriminatory attitudes towards gay people. It can make the difference between survivable crime and tragedy. Laws alone — and New Jersey had a law, which is now being used on the two other students — did not save Tyler’s life. What is needed is a wholesale change in social climate and attitudes towards minority sexual orientation.

And here, I note that Low and his party stand back. If anything, one is left to suspect that Low’s quick mention of Clementi’s name without explaining the background, testifies exactly to the difficulty the party has in coming clean on the subject. It’s as if Low wants to woo the gay voter by suggesting he sympathises with people caught in Tyler Clementi’s situation through making a quick mention of his name — I can’t say that that was his intent, but one can’t avoid wondering if it might have been. Yet, he and his party would offer no substantive move to deal with the key issue that caused his anguish and led to his suicide — not just the invasion of privacy, as explained above, but the persistence of homophobia in society. The Workers’ Party will not step forward to support repeal of Section 377A or the discriminatory censorship of gay representation in media, surely the first steps that have to be taken to tear down institutionalised discrimination and societal homophobia.

* * * * *

Two nights ago, Adam Lambert, the runner-up in Season 8 of American Idol, gave a guest performance in the current season of the same show. Hard though it is to believe possible, he’s becoming better and better. He was so good on American Idol Season 8, it’s amazing he’s gotten even more extraordinary.

Anyway, for his guest appearence, he sang a song that he wrote, called Aftermath, after which he told Ryan Seacrest, the show’s host, that he had signed away the dance remix of the song to the Trevor Project. This project came out of Tyler Clementi’s suicide; it’s a massive exercise by celebrities to reassure young gay persons that it is OK to be gay.

Here is the stripped-down acoustic version of Lambert’s Aftermath:

In closing, let me say this to the Workers’ Party: Please don’t dishonour Tyler Clementi’s name, even inadvertently, by using it for your partisan purposes without first resolving your own fear of standing up for equality, non-discrimination and a more progressive society.

2 Responses to “Workers’ Party, data privacy, and the elephant in the room”

  1. 1 Robox 15 March 2011 at 01:25

    “…let me say this to the Workers’ Party: Please don’t dishonour Tyler Clementi’s name, even inadvertently, by using it for your partisan purposes without first resolving your own fear of standing up for equality, non-discrimination and a more progressive society.”

    Thank you.

  2. 2 the unnamable 15 March 2011 at 21:38

    There seems little doubt that as long as the PAP maintains its overwhelming representation in Parliament, the chance of repealing discriminatory laws against gays is zero.

    I’d like to temper this pessimism with a cautious optimistic faith in the opposition.

    The Workers Party has arguably a very good chance of capturing more seats in Parliament than any other party. This, I think, is primarily because they have deliberately, even shrewdly, taken a position between socially moderate and conservative. As my choice of adjective “shrewd” suggests, this is probably a feint, bespeaking a political pragmatism that prioritises the breaking of PAP’s dominance/arrogance. The Workers Party’s official moderate-conservatism seems to me merely a tactic for gaining a firm foothold in Parliament. I have faith that if, by a miracle, the Workers Party (or any opposition party) forms government, they will work to repeal these discriminatory laws. For the moment, they are simply biding time and waiting/working for their opportunity.

    Cautious optimism, for the moment–until proven otherwise (i.e. until an opposition party forms government or captures a significant number of seats).

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