Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - THE EROSION OF PRIVACY: Big Brother is Watching

THE EROSION OF PRIVACY: Big Brother is Watching

THE EROSION OF PRIVACY: Big Brother is Watching

Each one of us occasionally has been under the scrutiny and judging gaze of another;

we feel uneasy, uncomfortable, inhibited, stifled, and drained of energy, unable

to be much else but awkwardly self-conscious.

Now, imagine a society where you could be monitored and watched at every second of

the day or night, every day of the week, every week of the year - possibly all the

time. Imagine a society in which those with power theoretically can always listen

in, watch, monitor your every move, no matter how private and intimate the occasion,

and then use the exchange as evidence against you legally and publicly.

Imagine no private space, no private conversation, because everything could eventually

be made known - when you talk politics with your friends; when you speak intimately

with a lover; when you go to work; when you take a shower. Such intrusion and surveillance

by the State has devastating effects on the self and the nation. Under the relentless

chilling gaze of the State, people live in fear of being judged and even persecuted

for mistakes, which would otherwise be lessons in growth and self-development. When

individuals are no longer afforded the private space to try and make mistakes, and

learn from their mistakes under the shade of trust and confidence and away from outside

scrutiny, personal development is stunted.

Self censorship takes hold and individuals become increasingly afraid to share their

opinions. They live in constant fear of slipping up; they become suffocated by the

continuous pressure of maintaining this façade.


Distrust and suspicion become widespread as individuals wonder who may be helping

to monitor them. Is it their neighbor? Their boss? Their best friend? Their spouse?

Their child? They learn to see others only as potential enemies, not as fellow human

beings. They themselves cease to be fully human. Eventually they grow so accustomed

to smothering their own characteristics and opinions that their individuality is

extinguished. Rather, they become mechanical, automated, slavish, unable to truly

live as vibrant and free individuals. It is as if they cannot even breathe by their

own will; they are only robotic extensions of the State.

A monitored life is an imprisoned, inhibited life that stifles all creativity, imagination,

growth, genuineness, trust, everything that is of any worth and meaning in daily

life. Unfortunately, the society described above is a reality in some places in the

world, and is nearing reality here in present-day Cambodia as the right to privacy

is increasingly diminished. Under the newly-adopted Criminal Procedure Code and the

envisioned draft law against terrorism, broad measures of intrusion into private

lives are permitted in the pursuit of combating crimes and terrorism.

The Right to Privacy under the Khmer Rouge

The erosion of privacy in Cambodia takes on a more sinister implication in light

of our current history when the Khmer Rouge completely abolished all privacy, individual

rights where we lived in constant fear and distrust, and where even children eavesdropped

and reported on their own parents.

The Right to Privacy Today: Danger Zone

Thirty years later, the kind of Orwellian society that Cambodians witnessed in the

late 1970s threatens to return. The current government has been known to monitor

and record individuals' phone conversations in order to discredit or imprison political

opponents. Indeed, Prince Norodom Sirivudh was stripped of his political immunity

in 1995 based on a phone conversation that was secretly recorded. Police searches

of private homes without a warrant are a routine occurrence. These problems will

be exacerbated under the new Criminal Procedure Code which allows for phone tapping,

and the envisioned Anti-Terrorism bill, which allows for nearly limitless governmental

surveillance of individuals in the name of national and international security. Even

if it could be argued that privacy rights must be occasionally infringed upon in

the name of security, such invasions must be infrequent, and only in the most extreme

cases, and the secretly tapped exchange should not be used as evidence, but only

a lead to other more substantive evidence. We must not become a society in which,

as Herbert Packer put it, "all are safe but none are free".

We cannot allow Cambodia to retreat back into the time of Pol Pot, in which the threat

of constant surveillance forced us to literally shut our mouths and stand by while

corruption and human rights abuses abound. Tragically, the world described in the

beginning of this column is all too easy to imagine because we have already lived

through these circumstances once, and the residue of fear is still a reality.

Though privacy rights are currently under attack all over the world, Cambodia is

particularly vulnerable. While many other nations have institutions and concrete

statutory protections that can counter a government's overzealous monitoring of its

population, Cambodia still lacks many such measures. For example, in Canada, a federal

Privacy Commissioner exists to investigate complaints around and challenge excessive

intrusions into the privacy of individuals. Japan passed the Interception Law in

1999, authorizing wiretapping in the investigation but restricting its use to prosecutors

and police officers of a certain rank. Additionally, these officials are required

to obtain a warrant before monitoring, and to notify those monitored after the investigation.

In countries like Canada, Japan and the United States, an extremely high threshold

exists before an intrusive measure is even raised for debate. Moreover, these countries

have counter-balancing power of strong institutions and sophisticated technology

to test and challenge the legitimacy and genuineness of wiretapping, computer tampering

etc. to prevent potential abuse. These protective measures are lacking in Cambodia.

Unfortunately, while the right to privacy is more difficult to protect in Cambodia,

there is also a much greater need for it. Cambodia remains a very fragile society

which is still rebuilding itself. We, Khmers, remain distrustful of each other, of

foreigners; we lack confidence in our ability to control the happenings in our lives.

Such distrust and lack of confidence will only be worsened by the constant pressure

that comes with extensive governmental surveillance. Without the ability to feel

comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and asking questions, we Khmers will find

it more difficult to develop the insight and vision required to undertake the re-building

our individual selves and society.

Privacy Rights are Universal and Must Be Realized

To be human is to be free. We are not free and it is mental imprisonment when we

live under the constant, eerie gaze of the State. Hence, the right to privacy is

so sacred to human existence. The intrusions strip us of our individuality, examining

and prodding at our thoughts until such thoughts are "acceptable" in the

eyes of those in power. Freedom of religion means little if we cannot pray in solitude

or gather in private for religious worship. Freedom to marry the person of one's

choice is diminished if partners cannot share intimate moments and expressions of

their feelings away from prying eyes. A right to actively participate in political

life does not truly exist when individuals are forced to fall silent and not debate.

Privacy is not a privilege, it is a right, universally desired and recognized.

This right to privacy is the very heart of human dignity. It is the foundation upon

which we build our personality and aspirations, make relationships, and think creatively

and critically. Who, being watched, can give in to their emotions with abandon, can

jump for joy or howl in sorrow? Who, being listened in on, can express their deepest

desire or their greatest fear, can share their most intimate secret, or can challenge

injustices perpetrated by the powers-that-be? Who, under the threat of constant public

scrutiny, can cast convention aside and "think outside the box"?

Intrusions into our privacy force the creative, the wise, the dreamers, and the critics

to fall in line out of fear. Without privacy there can be no true passion, intimacy,

or uniqueness - thus without privacy there is no self.

The new Criminal Procedure Code which allows for phone tapping, and the draft Anti-Terrorism

Law which permits broad intrusive measures dangerously restrict our constitutional

right to personal freedom. These are insidious developments for our fragile society

and people who are already traumatized by the fears instilled by the Khmer Rouge

and who continue to live within a culture of fear.

We must preserve our privacy and thus preserve our ability to think, to be, to act,

to breathe freely.

Erin Pulaski

Legal Intern, UC Berkeley

Theary C. Seng

Executive Director


  • Diplomatic passports issued to foreigners to be annulled

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will move to annul diplomatic passports issued to those not born in Cambodia. Analysts say the move may be in relation to reports that former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra used a Cambodian passport to register as

  • Hun Sen warns Irish MP of EBA ‘mistake’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday told former Irish premier Enda Kenny, still a member of the EU nation’s parliament, that the 28-nation bloc should not make a “third mistake” regarding Cambodia by using the preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement to “take 16 million

  • The hairy little heroes saving many lives in rural Cambodia

    IN RURAL Siem Reap province, rats dare to tread where no person will, as these hairy little heroes place their lives on the line each day for the good of the local community. The rodents are the most important members of a special team, leading

  • PM warns EU and opposition on 34th anniversary of his rule

    HUN Sen reached the milestone of 34 years as Cambodian prime minister on Monday and used the groundbreaking ceremony for a new ring road around Phnom Penh to tell the international community that putting sanctions on the Kingdom meant killing the opposition. “Please don’t forget