Bloomberg News

Amid Uproar Over NSA's Surveillance, Malaysia Wants to Expand Its Spying Powers

August 21, 2013

Malaysia's Minister Overseeing Graft & Human Rights Paul Low

Paul Low, Malaysia's minister in the Prime Minister's Department overseeing graft and human rights. Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

The spying scandal roiling the National Security Agency in the U.S. may turn out to provide great air cover for other countries wanting to expand electronic surveillance.

Take the Malaysian government.

The official in charge of fighting graft in the Southeast Asian nation says that the government may soon use phone tapping and Internet monitoring to help root out corporate and government corruption, a huge problem that costs the country as much as $9 billion a year, as my colleague Liau Y-Sing reported from Kuala Lumpur.

Paul Low, the minister in the Prime Minister's Department of fighting graft, says the government is in early-stage talks and declined to provide specifics about how sweeping any new powers might be or how they'd be used. And it's unclear to what degree the government is already snooping on its citizens.

He casts the issue in dire terms.

“Does Malaysia want to be a failed state or does it want to rise up?” the 67-year-old said.

By framing the expansion of government power as necessary to fight an urgent problem, Low is attempting to strike a populist chord amid a global debate over the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs. Will Malaysians buy it?

One analyst said the tactic could backfire as the public wants the government to go after known sources of corruption such as the police and political parties using existing laws.

"What the public is expecting them to do is to go after the major perpetrators that are generally publicly known but protected due to politics or so on," said Ibrahim Suffian with the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.

It's not clear how much the NSA scandal has factored into Low's calculus about how to deal with a regional issue. What is apparent, though, is that the scandal has started a debate that's become about more than how the U.S. spying apparatus should be constrained. Many tools of surveillance are available cheaply around the world, and it's relatively easy for governments to stand up a sophisticated digital spying operation.

And depending on the outcome in both the U.S. and Malaysia, other countries wanting to expand their snooping powers may follow suit.

This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.


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