Surveillance made slightly too simple

27 Nov

The Guardian posted an excellent animation called “The NSA and surveillance… made simple”, which I urge you to watch to put some things in perspective. However, like most of the coverage of the seedy business of government surveillance, it leaves out two important points:

  1. It’s not just about you being under surveillance, and how you feel about that. You probably have nothing to hide, since you are not that interesting, not doing anything that challenges those in power or the law as it currently stands (except possibly the copyright laws). But democracy is dependent on being constantly examined and challenged. Not very long ago, racial discrimination was the law inside the western world’s largest democracy. Not much longer ago, the law against homosexual acts in one of the world’s oldest democracies may have driven the father of computer science to suicide. (Incidentally, he had worked for a predecessor of today’s spying organizations in the war against fascism.) It’s not always the bad guys that need to hide from the authorities. Sometimes it’s their innocent victims. Sometimes it’s people upon whom democracy depends. Reporters, whistleblowers, activists of oppressed minorities etc., all need room to maneuver. Allowing the authorities to keep tabs on everyone takes democracy away. It’s not just about holding elections; remember, the German Democratic Republic held elections too.
  2. “It’s not just that our present governments shamelessly peep through our windows. They are building an infrastructure for tomorrow’s tyrants.” (Formulation from Beelzebjörn.) You may think that the officials of your government are all fair, just, and competent. To a large part, I agree with you, but some developments scare me. Practices implemented to block criminal content from the internet (instead of charging the criminals) will now be used to block “extremist narrative”.  Publishing government secrets is labeled terrorism. And so on. Today’s activists may be tomorrow’s “terrorists”. Across Europe, political parties that reasonable people label fascist are gaining popularity and influence. You may not like the governments of tomorrow, and there won’t be much to stop them if basic democratic rights like privacy and free speech are already shattered. Remember also, that future authorities will have access to some of the records on us that our governments collect today.
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