There’s been a lot of talk recently about government surveillance. The government has its reasons, but majority of the world’s population isn’t buying it. There are laws in place to protect the citizens, but at the end of the day we are talking about the government after all, and they do make the rules. What are the rules exactly? They’re different for different countries but generally, surveillance is allowed, but the government needs to have a good reason to do so and they usually need a warrant.
However, as recent history has shown, the government is not always honest about the way it conducts its surveillance tactics (*cough* USA *cough*). By definition, the only way it will work is by keeping it under wraps. So, for debating whether secret programs (like NSA) should be allowed or not, they first need to be discovered. NSA had bad luck getting caught, but this means there must be secret government organisations all over the world. With this in mind it is important for the citizens to understand why and when the government uses surveillance and how it uses this information. More importantly, is it good or not. Until recently, there has been little knowledge among the general public regarding government surveillance. It has taken the likes of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley (Chelsea) Manning to bring the information into light.
The question remains, is government surveillance good or bad? Critics would say that surveillance has the potential of creating a lot of good for the country. And while whistle-blowers tend to demand full transparency from the government, there may be times when quiet surveillance is needed and warranted and times where it is just an unnecessary invasion of privacy. The government says surveillance is important for catching terrorists and protecting ‘national interest’, whatever that means.
Well, won’t it be in the ‘national interest’ of a country to say, take over the world? In my opinion, they should start by giving remotely useful answers. Anyways, say if the US government had received surveillance on the 9-11 bombers and had been able to remove that threat, it would have definitely saved thousands of lives. That makes surveillance look quite important on paper, in practice not so much. We will probably never know what all similar instances are/were stopped by government surveillance. While it tends to infringe on our freedoms at times, it is still arguably necessary in the right circumstances, however few they may be. That is the only ‘good’ and unless the government can walk this fine line, it’s going to be terribly wrong.
Let’s take an example, say a lot of internet traffic from all over the world passes through one country. Does that mean that country has the right to tap every line and go through millions of private messages to see if they can spot a terrorist? First of all this takes a thick wallet (not to mention forgetting the constitution). The country needs to decide whether this money can be used elsewhere. No matter what the pros and cons, it just comes down to whether or not they are willing to sacrifice the population’s privacy to protect them and whether or not they are willing to do something bad to protect against something worse. And that’s the main problem, we can’t say yes to surveillance because that would mean a direct invasion of privacy for the entire population and we can’t say no because it does have a very real potential to be quite useful in some situations. For example, Osama Bin Laden’s location was found after a decade of search, through satellite surveillance and some undercover ground missions. We’ll be circling the same stuff over and over again when it comes to governement surveillance. It’s good only when done EXACTLY right. Keeping the citizens aware about at least the outlines of any surveillance program should be step 1.
Come to think of it, eventually an average person won’t care if some fat old government official is reading his emails. But that’s because, the average person doesn’t discuss ways to crash a plane in a building and the government will probably not find anything useful so it’s not even worth looking into. All in all, are we willing to neglect the possibility that a major terror incident may be prevented because of government surveillance? You decide.
(Although terrorists probably don’t discuss terror tactics on facebook or gmail, their messages, if any, go through the same internet wires as any normal messages. Perhaps they use TOR email services, not that I would know. Anyways, these can be tapped and the messages can be decrypted which may provide the government valuable intel.)
Obviously, government surveillance is not all good and causes many problems for the people. The first major concern is the fact that government surveillance may limit the creation of new and controversial ideas amongst the people. This is a direct hit on the intellectual freedom of the people. The next thing we need to realize is the shift of power that government surveillance creates.
Say, some government official leaks information that clearly indicates that the ruling party is planting false ideas and facts against the opposition party, isn’t this crossing the line? Perhaps they may even be paying large and trusted facebook groups to spread false facts that favour their own party. Although there is no evidence to support this possibility, there’s no evidence against it either.
The advancements in technology have also made it very easy for government agencies to abuse the power of surveillance. This technology, when used in the wrong manner, could become detrimental to the freedoms that we enjoy and love. Enabling government surveillance will mean a direct invasion of our privacy.
Now the question is, “Who does the government use for surveillance?” Let’s take an example of NSA. The NSA was enacted in 1952 by President Truman and was quickly commissioned to monitor, collect, decode, translate and analyze data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. Originally, this was intended for foreign interests, but after the attacks of 9-11, it became more prudent to keep an eye on actual citizens living within the borders.
Almost every country conducts their own form of government surveillance. Great Britain has GCHQ, Australia has ASD, Canada has CSEC etc. Tactics used by GCHQ were also brought into question when Edward Snowden released the, now infamous, report on government surveillance. His documents showed that the GCHQ has access to Prism, the NSA internet monitoring system, and at one time collected 1.8 billion private web-cam images from across the world.
Likewise, NSA was accused of collecting millions of phone records, browser histories, injecting backdoors into countless systems, paying companies to make their software vulnerable and what not. NSA alone spent over $10 billion in 2013. That’s money that could have been spent, say eradicating poverty in half a dozen countries and perhaps curing cancer. Forget government surveillance, it seems today the main priority is holding back others instead of moving forward together. There’s one thing we can be sure of: whatever the hell we’re doing, it can be done in a much better way.
Currently, there are many groups around the world that are aimed at making government surveillance more transparent. Their goal is to create freedom for all and to ease the minds of the citizens. Nobody wants to feel watched when they perform mundane tasks and everybody deserves a bit of privacy. But, how do governments go about keeping themselves and their citizens safe from those who wish to bring harm inside their borders? The best ways to prevent these attacks are debatable, but currently one of our main defenses is surveillance. Regulations should be put in place to keep normal citizens safe from surveillance abuse, but how transparent can surveillance really be and still be effective?
Regulations are also being put in place that allow the government to conduct even further surveillance. Then there’s the matter of state-run media. News is how we’re supposed to find out about the workings and happenings around the world. If someone can control what is being said in social networks and news channels, what does that leave us with? Nothing. Without freedom of the press, the government will be free to control how people feel and think about the country and the world. Clearly, governments want the citizens to favour themselves. In times of war, media is always used to portray the enemy badly. Google up any recent conflict and then take a look at each side’s media. Are both the sides right? That’s impossible. You can bet each of them show events taking place in different lights, taking up views that favour their own nation being right. This is clear evidence of the influence governments have on the news being shown to the public. If this is what surveillance leads to, are we sure the pros outweigh the cons? You decide.
It is important for average law-abiding citizens to feel comfortable with their own thoughts, in their own homes, while living their lives peacefully. Government surveillance may be the price that we all have to pay in order to keep safe from those who wish to disrupt our daily lives, but the questions remains, Has the government gone too far? Can they be trusted? Who should decide what is to be done? And most of all, are we even asking the right questions? Only time will tell.