Bounty Hunters in Korea

by on September 29, 2011 at 7:01 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Fascinating article in the NYTimes about Korean “paparazzi,” camera-wielding bounty hunters who film people committing small crimes and then turn the evidence in for a bounty:

The opportunities are everywhere: a factory releasing industrial waste into a river, a building owner keeping an emergency exit locked, doctors and lawyers not providing receipts for payment so that they can underreport their taxable income.

Mr. Im’s pet target is people who burn garbage at construction sites, a violation of environmental laws.

“I’m making three times what I made as an English tutor,” said Mr. Im, 39, who began his new line of work around seven years ago and says he makes about $85,000 a year….

The outsourcing of law enforcement has also been something of a boon for local governments. They say that they can save money on hiring officers, and that the fines imposed on offenders generally outstrip the rewards paid to informers. (The reward for reporting illegal garbage dumping: about $40. The fine: about 10 times as much.)

For most infractions, rewards can range from as little as about $5 (reporting a cigarette tosser) to as much as $850 (turning in an unlicensed seller of livestock). But there are possibilities for windfalls. Seoul’s city government promises up to $1.7 million for reports of major corruption involving its own staff members.

The system appears to work well, if you take the goals as given. The goals, of course, are where the trouble lies. Tax-farming was efficient but was it a good idea? (Is it a good idea today in developing countries? Compare here with here and consider a recent proposal for tax farming in Greece.) Private prisons reduce costs but given the law of demand how much do we want to reduce the price of imprisoning people?  (See Bruce Benson’s paper in my book, Changing the Guard.) All else equal, it’s more efficient to tax goods with inelastic demands but give government the right to tax such goods and all else will not be equal, leviathan will tax more.

The bounties, however, are only part of the issue. More fundamentally, what we are seeing is the ubiquity of surveillance. I have mixed feeling about this transformation but given technology it is inevitable. What we can do, however, is to ensure that the surveillance goes all ways. The government surveils us both directly and with the help of the junior bounty hunters but we must guard our rights to also surveil them.

Hat tip: Maxim Lott.

prior_approval September 29, 2011 at 7:17 am

Non mention of David Brin’s thinking from the late 1990s? (For an example, check here – http://www.davidbrin.com/ts1.htm)

And the emphasis (in terms of the highest payoff – which is an interesting turn of phrase right there) of Seoul’s city government shows a certain awareness of how surveillance must go all ways, in much the same sense Brin explored.

Of course, in the U.S., the NSA claims attorney privilege when Congress attempts to determine what it is even doing – in America, the time for worrying about was years ago.

Meaning that in the U.S., you can readily recognize which path was followed in terms of who possessed the power of ubiqitous surveillance – and it isn’t the citizens, much less them being rewarded for uncovering malfeasance.

prior_approval September 29, 2011 at 7:18 am

Not ‘Non,’ ‘No.’

David September 29, 2011 at 8:04 am

Something I wondered while reading: what about faked video? How do you know what you’re seeing is real? And doesn’t that impose a lot of costs on those falsely accused?

albatross September 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Sooner or later, that will become a big issue, I think.

The more immediate problem is the remarkable tendency of incriminating footage in the hands of the criminals to be accidentally deleted. I gather there’s a pretty strong correlation between someone getting the hell beat out of him for “resisting arrest” and the dash cam footage from the police care being accidentally deleted, for example.

If you stream the cellphone video to a third party in realtime, the third party could timestamp and digitally sign it, providing some evidence that it wasn’t doctored later. But there’s no way to be sure when the footage was originally taken, or whether the whole scene being filmed was entirely or partially staged, or what’s going on off camera that might change the whole picture. (Imagine a videotape of a confession of murder, and then pan out to see the implements of torture in the room next to the guy making the confession–suddenly, the information conveyed by the video changes radically.)

It’s also notable that at least in the US, all sorts of police and private security/rentacops forbid photography. It’s almost never actually illegal, but that doesn’t necessarily matter, since police and rentacops are never punished for that kind of thing.

Isaac September 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

I read ‘Korea’ and ‘turning people in for a bounty’ and immediately thought that it was about North Korea. I’m not sure if this says more about Korea or about me.

Many of our laws are not designed for operation in a panopticon, even a bi-directional one. Our social mores certainly aren’t; a world where busybodies can ferret out any deviation from the social norm strips us of any plausible deniability that makes relationships between people with radically different beliefs possible.

Mike September 29, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I thought the same thing, and I’m Korean so don’t feel bad.

Even though the article began with SEOUL and specifically mentioned SK later, it wasn’t until I read ‘Dongguk University’ that I figured it out.

I was more interested in the story than the setting, I guess.

Andrew' September 29, 2011 at 8:50 am

Make sure laws are about legitimate crimes against individuals and most of the ancillary problems (such as cops who think it’s a good idea to use less-lethal pain compliance against citizens offending their authoritah) go away.

Jim September 29, 2011 at 9:21 am

It’s obvious that a sensible Army of Davids approach to crime prevention, combined with advancements in technology, have an enormous potential to make life much better for everyone in the USA.

The main obstacles:
1 — Police unions.
2 — Bored intellectuals who will endlessly warn us that people should just stay home and let the Government do everything on their behalf, otherwise we risk threatening the income of police unions. Er, I mean, threatening “the very fabric of civilization.”
3 — Bored citizens who are overzealous, invasive, and annoying. We would need Government to effectively ignore or dissaude such people so that they can go back to doing what they did before. This group would largely include peeping toms, personal injury lawyers, trash-pickers, telemarketers, and Paul Krugman. Whether a society is better off with more or less of such people is a matter of personal taste.

prior_approval September 29, 2011 at 10:33 am

This is fascinating – you do realize that the police unions have nothing to do with the omnipresent monitoring of communications in the U.S., don’t you?

Or the demanding of information from such sources as Facebook (that picture identification feature is the sort of the thing that the NSA/FBI/’government’ would never have been able to force on a population, especially one so interested in ensuring its accuracy) or Google. Or GM’s et al no longer possible to evade GPS monitoring systems mandated in every new vehicle.

We already live in a very thoroughly surveilled society – it is simply that the people doing it apparently have neither an obligation nor a duty to let you know about it. Police unions have nothing to do with any of it.

Police unions as a having any revelance in a discussion of monitoring – hilarious.

albatross September 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Local police do sometimes engage in illegal surveilance, but you’re right that most of it is happening from the top (essentially turning Echelon on the American people after 9/11) and from the bottom (people posting lots of personal details on Facebook, posting with location information, etc., and advertisers, marketers, and researchers vaccuuming that information up.)

I wonder if there will ever be an effective backlash. I am deeply skeptical of the possibility of political pushback against this, because I think several years of all-but-unlimited domestic surveillance tends to make the agency doing the surveillance really, really hard to take on. I rather suspect a bigger part of the response will be a loss of more taboos, in the way that it’s getting harder and harder to blackmail someone for being gay. (It’s unrewarding when you threaten to out some guy if he doesn’t do as you wish, and his response is to wryly ask if you’re going to tell his husband.) More and more personal weirdness will just be swallowed, because it’s visible more often so it doesn’t seem so weird, in much the same way as gays seem much less weird now than 30 years ago, just because of exposure.

whowhawhen September 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

This is not a good idea. I want more privacy not less. I don’t really see the difference in where the information about my wrong doing comes from (let’s say: a camera in my home installed by the local PD versus a neighbor shooting through my window and turning it in to the local PD).

TW September 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm

This reminds me of something here in the US: http://www.sfweekly.com/2007-07-25/news/wheelchairs-of-fortune/
More generally, there are all sorts of things in US law and the laws of its states which serve as incentives to monitor others and to profit by punishing them. It’s just that we typically don’t do it in the criminal side of the law, we do it in the civil side: you’re given standing to sue someone. That’s how we (attempt to) deal with bogus evidence and claims: you can only get the reward if you prevail in court (or get the offender to settle).

stalin September 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I’m making three times what I made as an English tutor

But I’ll bet it was safer.

anonymous... September 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Since a surveillance society is more or less inevitable (if the government doesn’t do it, then someone else will: just watch Mexico), we should probably look for a silver lining. In what ways will the quality of life actually improve under a surveillance society?

Here’s an example of what I mean: consider the fact that you can get off a plane in any city and rent a car. That’s a convenience made possible only by the fact that we already live in a partial surveillance society, where it’s difficult and inconvenient to go off the grid, where identities can already be tracked, albeit imperfectly. By contrast, imagine trying to run a horse rental business in 19th century America: you’d go out of business within days, and your horses would end up with new owners all over the Wild West.

Children would probably benefit from a surveillance society: it would be much easier to raise a “free range” kid. Broad-based restrictive measures (eg, city-wide curfews on anyone under a certain age) would instead be fine-tuned and individualized, reducing unfairness to the blameless. People would be safer from stalking, because restraining orders could be monitored in real time. There would be a moral-panic crackdown on violence, because every instance would be magnified into a Rodney King incident, with documentary video footage. There would be a wholesale turnover in the prison inmate population, with nonviolent drug offenders replaced by people who got into a bar fight, once. (The drug offenders would serve time on the streets, with ubiquitous cameras taking the place of ankle bracelets). Finally, binary distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants (either you have a green card or you don’t) might be replaced by a reputation-based probationary trial period with a sliding scale of rights and privileges.
The overall theme is that it’s much easier to individually evaluate a person when you have a track record of everything they’ve been up to, so one-size-fits-all restrictions give way to something fairer to every individual, on their merits. Maybe even things like determining voting age, drinking age, driving age could be tailored and customized and crowdsourced.

bunker brown September 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Probably one of the best comments I have read

albatross September 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm

A fundamental question is who gets control of the surveillance information. If everyone gets it, then you can get the kind of society you’re talking about. The other extreme point there is that the surveillance information is closely held by the authorities. I don’t think that leads to very many happy outcomes.

ron October 1, 2011 at 2:46 am

Some good points. But, I don’t see the connection between ubiquitous surveilance and individualized treatment.

john malpas September 29, 2011 at 9:12 pm

A really big beaurocrcy would bound to eventuate from the people who watch the video recordings , the people who classify the results, the people who manage the actual cameras, the documenters and interpreters, the people who manage the people etc.

anonymous... September 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

We’ll probably see a large-scale jobs shift play out, similar to the previous century’s change away from a largely agricultural labor force. After today’s jobs go away (brick-and-mortar retail among others), it seems plausible that most people will work online in the “mechanical turk” sector of the economy, doing the things that machines can’t (yet) do.

ron October 1, 2011 at 2:48 am

With facial recognition software this could potentially be automated. Imagine stepping off a curb and immediately getting a notice on your cell phone that you have been fined for jay walking.

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John Thacker September 30, 2011 at 12:30 am

All else equal, it’s more efficient to tax goods with inelastic demands but give government the right to tax such goods and all else will not be equal, leviathan will tax more.

Isn’t this an argument that some at Cato give against a VAT, even though VATs are more efficient?

Marian Kechlibar October 1, 2011 at 3:51 am

In my opinion, many legal norms are only tolerable because they are seldom enforced.

With consistent enforcement, the country would (will?) turn into a concentration camp full of nervous, frightened people constantly looking over their shoulders.

John B. October 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I’d like to know what percentage of these freelance videos to date have been deemed admissible evidence.

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