Originally posted in netivist.org
Governments legally spying on citizens? We discuss the privacy vs security and freedom vs safety dilemmas, and in particular if government mass surveillance programs are justified.
Privacy vs security: government surveillance programs
We are living in the post-Snowden revelations era after the 2014 fiasco regarding the unveiling of mass surveillance programs, such as the controversial and highly confidential PRISM surveillance system run by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. That entire ordeal led to extreme public outrage over the government intruding in our everyday privacy. Today, however, unprecedented developments have also been witnessed as public opinion has shifted dramatically, with steps taken to actually approve more invasive government surveillance program.
Did terrorist attacks across Europe plunge us to the depth of self-monitoring? At a time when discussions about online privacy concerns have increased in various nations across the globe, people of democratic countries in the heart of Europe making their voices heard, and even voting in a referendum, to provide further authority for their central government to carry out surveillance across the land. This can be analyzed as an unanticipated side effect of recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. Many questions are raised over the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs and the entire drama of what can be dubbed as legal government spying.
In response to the horrendous 9/11 terrorist attacks leaving nearly 3,000 people dead across America, the U.S. led the world not only in the war against terror, but also in taking action to launch measures to increase monitoring methods and techniques on home soil. It is a known fact that one can never take on an initiative against an enemy if they lack any security back home. America, for example, ratified the famous Patriot Act back in 2001 and although the bill enjoyed enormous approval during its adoption, and despite the fact it was renewed by a 280 to 138 vote again by the House of Representatives in March 2006, many of the provisions remain highly controversial to say the least, and many have even faced court challenges. The freedom vs safety dilemma was resolved in favor of the latter. Laws on immigration, banking, money laundering and methods to carry out foreign surveillance were completely overhauled or amended.
Watch this video by the Wall Street Journal on PRISM secret surveillance program
In favor and against government surveillance
There are advocates of further government surveillance, arguing the central government of every country should be provided the authority to literally hack into your computers and install malware, all in a legal fashion. Under such a policy the government should be invited and given the green light for tapping Internet comms and telephones, and thus installing hidden cameras and various types of “bugs” in all types of public, and private, locations with the ultimate goal of gathering data. These advocates believe in theprimacy of security over privacy.
Again those in favor of such practices by the government voice their side of the debate especially by citing the need to use such systems and advanced technology to target terrorism in this day and age. While mainland America may for now enjoy relative security in the post-September 11 era, nearly all of Europe has been engulfed in fear of terrorism as Paris, Brussels and other large metropolitan cities across the Green Continent have become favor targets for terrorist cells hell-bent on creating havoc and making life miserable for the ordinary European.
As a result, governments are at times overtly and covertly resorting to such methods of enhanced surveillance in their quest to hunt down and bust all such cells, and ensure their public they can provide the safety they rightfully deserve. The irony is one terrorist cell can enormously impact the political landscape of a European country, and lead to a chain reaction of growing concerns across countries with a population of over 800 million.
Governments also emphasize such surveillance and monitoring technology can be used to counter espionage efforts, hinder the spread of weapons of mass destruction and attacks–through terrorism and cyberattacks–targeting infrastructure considered significantly important on a national scale.
Understanding the sensitivity of the matter, some governments may take on the initial stance of limiting the use of such powers to a certain amount of times each year. However, what controlling and observation mechanism will ensure this promise remains a quite vague subject. With the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program setting a very bad example in the public’s mind, there is a huge concern about such Internet mass surveillance systems becoming generalized before we know what hit us. Opponents also claim intelligence services have no right to spy on every single aspect of ordinary citizen’s lives, as PRISM literally does, and there has to be some kind of respect to our privacy. Are the basic and fundamental rights of citizens violated through the use of preventive surveillance and mass observation? Those who reply yes to such a question are fierce advocates of encryption technology provided by Apple and other companies, and their approach to the privacy of their customers.This may not be simply a problem of national security vs privacy, but other civil rights may also be endangered. A government spying on citizens may instil fear and lose legitimacy.
While it is a known fact that every country on the planet has imposed laws authorizing the legal electronic communications interception and data mining, the misuse of such authority by various governments across the planet has made the general public quite wary about backdoors. Governments may be pushing companies to leave covert loopholes in their software, and the public only realizing after it’s already too late. The Yahoo 500 million account hack, with speculations of nearly a billion accounts being involved, has led to further speculations about Washington forcing such companies to scan customer e-mails for the U.S. intelligence community.
The bottom line
The truth is that fears about various threats and support to enhance government mass surveillance powers have increased as terror attacks began targeting mainland Europe. There are the somewhat “centralists” on this topic who believe comprehensive security will only be realized if harmony is achieved between technology and legal protections, involving meaningful tech companies and governments across the globe. If needed, the privacy vs security conundrum should be discussed at the United Nations, and maybe in the Security Council, being the highest decision making body on the planet.
Ideal would be to reach the point of adopting a system of proper checks-and-balances, enshrined in the law, to allow the government to present this entire issue of mass surveillance “for the better good” of the public all the more palatable. Gaining federal court approval and the consent of ministers before utilizing any powers is one such consideration. Of course, there have been cases like the U.K. government which has found itself engulfed in a seemingly endless loop of gaining judicial approval to deploy and take advantage of more unpleasant capabilities.
As controversial and heated this topic has been and will most definitely continue to be, there is one less discussed factor that actually needs the attention it has been unjustifiably deprived. We as a society must continue to mature in order to comprehend how we can actually discover and reach the right balance between civil rights and national security. The correct ethics in this regard is out there, waiting for us to reach the point of being able to digest its importance, and thus carry out the necessary measures. This may mean allowing the government into some aspects of our lives, while also placing into action the correct system of checks-and-balances toregulate law enforcement authority. However challenging the task, we owe it to the next generations, and ourselves, to reach a logical concept to pave the path forward.
Watch this interview with Edward Snowden