After the UK government unveiled the Investigatory Powers Bill, which Edward Snowden described as “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance program in the West”, the issue of government surveillance needs to be addressed again. If Snowden’s revelations achieved anything, it made us aware that we must be careful of everything we say, everything we read, everything we write, everywhere we go and everyone we communicate with, because it is all recorded by the government. Privacy is essentially dead, and the IP bill, according to Snowden, attempts to “fit the law around spying, rather than making spying fit the law”.
Freedom vs. Security
When it all comes down to it, government mass surveillance is about freedom versus security. The first point to make is government can’t give freedom, it can only take freedom. The great victories of liberty, whether it was the achievement of freedom of speech, or the achievement of many social freedoms and economic freedoms we enjoy today, all came about after long and hard fought battles between the people who wanted their liberty and the government who had taken it away. The right to privacy is one of these rights, and it would be a mistake and a dishonour to those who fought to achieve it, to give it up so carelessly.
Next, governments tend to argue that mass surveillance is necessary for national security. In the modern world, there is an existential terrorist threat, and so the citizens need to be spied on in order to keep them safe, or so the argument goes. Firstly, terrorism would be much less of a problem if Western governments hadn’t gotten involved overseas in the first place. The term ‘Blowback’ was coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences of interventionist foreign policy. The latest example being how the US fuelled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, by getting involved in the middle-east, and supplying rebels with arms. And so, governments are making us less safe by their own foreign policy.
Secondly, the threat of terrorism has been largely overstated by governments. Studies show that the number of Americans killed by terrorists is about equal to the number of people killed by lightning, by deer, or by peanut allergy. Yet, it would be absurd to give up our rights to deal with the deer problem, just as it would be equally absurd for the government to spend billions on prevent lightning.
Third point is that there is little evidence that suggests that mass surveillance has made people more safe. Experts say that NSA surveillance has played little role in foiling terror plots, and senators Wyden and Udall argued that “We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence.” A prominent report claimed that the collection of all phone metadata is not a necessary tool to combat terrorism, and the government “does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack,”
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear
We’ve all heard this argument. Most recently Conservative MP Richard Graham, speaking in defence of the IP Bill. Supporters of mass surveillance repeatedly say it, unknowingly quoting Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels – the originator of the phrase. The argument has been debunked time and time again.
Firstly, there is a much stronger case for the argument to be applied to governments than citizens. We live in a democracy, and the government is elected and funded by the people. Shouldn’t it follow that governments be completely open and transparent? After all “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”.
Second, there are many things that people had to hide which are now legal that used to be illegal. For example, it used to be against the law to be homosexual. Homosexuals used to have to hide the fact that they were homosexual to escape punishment from government. The civil rights movement, women’s rights, interracial marriage, gay marriage and so on would never have been allowed if nobody had anything to hide.
Finally, the best argument, comes from Edward Snowden, who said: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”