Surveillance: Fundamentally Wrong

“It seems to me that any government prepared to subject its citizens to mass surveillance is by definition the wrong one. No one can be trusted with powers as wide and inscrutable as these.”

George Monbiot in The Guardian, 2013-06-24

At the point where a surveillance system of any kind is built, things are already going horribly wrong. Being watched all the time creates an atmosphere of fear which, as the German Federal Constitutional Court once put it, may deter people from exercising their rights. People will feel pressured into behaving like everyone else, and especially not in a way someone, somewhere could consider suspicious. Mass surveillance is never justified.

Network Investigation

Now my grandfather would say: “But we have to catch the bad guys!” However, investigation and surveillance are not the same. Investigation is taking a closer look at someone because of a reasonable suspicion of an actual crime. This is appropriate in principle, although safeguards against unreasonable measures are necessary (and need work in many countries). Investigation does not require mass surveillance. Mass surveillance, on the other hand, means watching everyone, trying to find something. And that something can be almost anything.

I’ve worked as a network administrator for a few years, I do network research now. And I can tell you that capturing someone’s traffic is quite easy from the perspective of a network administrator. I never had to do this in practice, but I know the necessary tools because I do need them for network analysis in research. My point here is that it would be easy to get suspects’ data without building surveillance into networks. Just get a warrant, and then present that warrant to the network administrator in charge. They’ll know what to do. Proper investigation does not require built-in access for police or intelligence agencies. Push-button access only invites abuse.

And that’s why I wrote that building a surveillance system is fundamentally wrong. It invites abuse and is by definition an instrument of oppression, while not having any real merit. Things like the NSA’s PRISM, the GCHQ’s Tempora, the EU data retention requirements or the recent German “stored data access” laws must be abolished without replacement.

Brain Damage

When I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet a while ago, I was very interested to learn that on the one hand group pressure alters our perception, and on the other choosing to stand against the perceived expectations of others takes a measurable toll on the brain, similar to pain. She calls this “the price of independence.” Surveillance creates a constant background of such pressure. In other words, surveillance harms your brain.

And this is something I feel quite often as well. I don’t want to be watched, I don’t want to create a nuisance, I want to be able to live my life in peace. But I can’t. I can’t watch silently as freedom disappears, as liberty is taken slice by slice. It is frustrating how little I can do, but I mustn’t give up. Today, I stand for freedom. What will you do?

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