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The technological effects of SOSMA and POTA

The new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in Malaysia should not be considered in isolation but rather in the context of the 6 other anti-terrorism Bills that were concurrently proposed. All of these new laws, will almost certainly come into effect, thanks to the whip system employed by the ruling party. Yet the laws violate fundamental human rights, such as a right to fair trial and right to personal privacy.

I’m particularly worried about the amendments to the Security Offenses Special Measures Act (SOSMA), an amendment that has slipped under the radar simply because its been out-done by harsher changes to the sedition act, and the new POTA.

The original SOSMA had granted Law Enforcement powers to intercept and store any kind of communication, including digital communications, without any judicial oversight.  Police Officers ‘not below the rank of SuperIntendants’ could wiretap any communications if the ‘felt’ there was need to do so, without obtaining any warrant. Section 24 of the act further stipulated, that law enforcement did not have to reveal how they obtained such information and could not be compelled to do so under the law, which acts as blank cheque to the police and other investigative bodies to utilize any and all manner of surveillance and intelligence gathering, regardless of their legality of their methods, since no oversight can be carried out on their methods.

The amendment to SOSMA, further enhances existing powers to allow for any evidence “howsoever obtained, whether before of after a person has been charged” to be admissible in a court of law. Which isn’t a big jump from where we were, but making this statement explicit in the act, leads me to only one conclusion.

Our legislators have granted such a broad powers to the Police and the executive branch of government, that they now can intercept, and store communications of millions of Malaysians, hence the next logical step would be state-wide bulk surveillance. In light of what the NSA and GCHQ have already done, SOSMA would make it perfectly legal for Malaysian authorities to execute identical surveillance programs locally and have all the evidence generated under such program be admissible in a court of law without ever revealing how the evidence was obtained.

Think about it, on the one hand, the Government amends Sosma to allow it to collect just about anything as evidence without any Judicial oversight that might ‘slow down the process’, and on the other hand it needs POTA to detain ‘terrorist’ without a trial because its hard to come by evidence. It doesn’t make any sense, what’s the point of creating POTA if you’ve already removed all the barriers to collecting evidence, and what’s the point of SOSMA if you already have the powers to detain someone without any evidence.

It would seem to me, that by allowing Government surveillance of any kind, and by allowing detention without trial, we’re creeping into a world where the Government can intercept all your communications to learn about what you’re thinking and doing–and then detain you without any justification. That’s a world even Stalin would envy.

I know I’m a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy nut, and I know I’m on an extreme edge when it comes to political and social views—not many Malaysians agree with me on many things. Still…I think that if you look at the acts in totality, place it in context of the current trends of Government surveillance across the world, and consider that our government has a track record of deploying spyware in Malaysia, seems perfectly reasonably to me, to conclude that our government wants to run a state-sponsored bulk-surveillance operations in Malaysia.

Effects of Government Surveillance

Not many people, especially Malaysians would think too much about their privacy. Our privacy laws are loose in comparison to our Europeans counterparts, but there’s a reason why privacy forms the backbone of any society. Government surveillance, especially done in bulk, tears the very fabric that holds society together, this forces us to allow government surveillance only when absolutely necessary and not write them blank cheques to snoop in on our private communications. The Amendments to SOSMA will have severe effects on Malaysia, and I doubt many have seriously considered those consequences of what the true value of the privacy we’re giving up has, against the benefits of security we get in return for that sacrifice.

Here’s 3 reasons why we need to limit Government Surveillance.

Government surveillance changes the way we act

Knowing you’re being watched changes how you act. The way you behave when you’re alone at home, differs from the way you act when you have guest.Everybody loves to have guest over, but how would you feel if you guest came by whenever they liked, and never left!!

Consider that if we had whole-sale government surveillance, that everybody knew the government was watching every site we visited, and every e-mail we sent, how many Muslims in this country would search for the keyword Shia, how many Muslims would search the word “Dog”? How many people would search for keyword “homosexual”, or “Gay”, or “Allah”? You can see how Government surveillance will cause you to think twice about the next thing you search, because who knows what alarms might go off at KDN.

A blank cheque to law enforcement to intercept anyone’s communications is bad. If citizens of this country knew, that the government could easily target them and watch everything they did online, than they’ll begin to limit what they see and search themselves, thereby reducing the value of the internet to Malaysians. We can’t create an knowledge-based society, if that society is afraid to actually search for knowledge.

Communications intercepts effect more than just the target

Even if the Police managed to target a specific individual, intercepting communications by definition covers more than that individual. Communications intercept like wire-taps or e-mail snooping will cover everyone the target communicates with at any time, which might include law-abiding citizens of the country as well.

I’m not saying wire-taps are bad, I’m saying that we should set some standards and oversight as to when wire-taps are allowed, and not just trust a lone police officer of rank superintendent or higher to make that call.

A communication intercept must be hard to execute simply because it affects more than just the target, and there’s a reason why it’s hard to execute. I also fail to understand how a Police Officer can be so convinced that a person is a terrorist and needs intercepting, but at the same time feel that they’re unable to convince a Judge.

Bulk-surveillance doesn’t stop terrorist, and Judicial oversight doesn’t inhibit targeted surveillance

This is probably the most important reason. If easier surveillance somehow stopped terrorist, than explain to me this.

How is it that the NSA spent billions of dollars building what is the biggest state surveillance operation in the world, with communication intercepts of everything from e-mail to social post, to web cam feeds–yet America still fell victim to a bunch of loners pulling of a bombing at a Boston Marathon?

If bulk surveillance really did stop terrorist, the Boston Marathon wouldn’t have occurred, and if you argue that NSA wasn’t doing enough surveillance, then we need to talk offline, and you need to read about Optic Nerve.

The notion that getting a warrant from a Judge would somehow impede the investigation doesn’t hold water. How many terrorist do we think there are? Removing the needs for warrants on searches only serves to reduce the freedom all Malaysians just so we can catch some of the terrorist terrorist, doesn’t seem like a fair trade to me, particularly when the methods itself is ineffective.

Conclusion

I’m in no way, advocating that law enforcement not be allowed to keep someone under surveillance. I’m making the point that when someone’s privacy is being violated we need more than one branch of government to provide necessary oversight. Privacy is such a valuable thing, we need to be absolutely sure about something BEFORE we take it away from someone.

Having a Judge provide necessary over-sight before an intercept can be deployed isn’t so much to ask. If the Police were convinced that the person they’re suspecting is really a terrorist—then why can’t they convince a Judge to reach the same the conclusion?

The point of terrorism

The point of terrorism isn’t to kill someone. The point of terrorism is to terrorize.

Terrorist want you to feel insecure, they want you to be scared, and that fear is supposed to drive you to their end goal, either that’s getting more money or setting up a caliphate.

Therefore our response shouldn’t be one of cowardice but one of courage. The courage to say we will not be afraid and we won’t change our ways just because of them.

The so called ‘Prevention of Terrorism’ act is really the ‘Admission of being terrified’ act, because we so willingly have given up our freedom in order to ‘address the terrorist’, when in fact we’re doing what they’ve always wanted us to do–be terrified.

Final conclusion

May people ask me why a Tech Blogger is so interested in these things. Tech blogs should talk about screen sizes, and processor speed, not security policy or legal amendments.

Wrong. First off, those things you think are ‘tech blogs’ are ‘gadget blogs’, mostly interested in mundane things like battery life and screen resolution.

Secondly, talking about cyber-security and not talk about what Governments are doing, is like talking about smartphones and not talk about the iPhone. Governments are the biggest players in the field right now, they’re the ones deploying APTs and Spyware on citizens, and they’re the ones going out of their way to lure cyber security experts to help them hack systems,  there are hundreds of companies that sell spyware exclusively to Governments–it’s an entire Industry to itself. Governments will spend more on offensive technology than all civilians spend on anti-viruses.

Governments are messing up the internet, and the only way to stop them is not technologically but politically, because government are slow to respond to technological challenges, but when they do they’re effective. Our only option here is to make sure the policies we have in place limit their ability to damage our precious internet.

If the government isn’t playing by the rules, no point thinking up new rules, you need to make sure the government stops playing.

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