Is Surveillance Undemocratic?

There is an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph as follows:

“More than 500 of the world’s leading authors have condemned the scale of state surveillance, warning that spy agencies are undermining democracy.  In a statement the writers from 81 different countries, including British authors Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Amis, call for an international charter enshrining digital rights.  The authors warn that the extent of surveillance has undermined people’s right to “remain unobserved and unmolested” in their communications.

“This fundamental right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes,” it says.

“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.  To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as well as in real space. . . . Surveillance is theft.  . . . . This data is not public property.  It belongs to us.  When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else – the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.”

The statement comes after eight of the biggest technical companies formed an alliance to call on Barack Obama, the American president to reform surveillance laws.  Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo have united to form a group called Reform Government Surveillance, marking the first time competing companies have presented a united front.

From what I have read about Reform Government Surveillance, it seems to make a lot of sense.  But I have major reservations about the language used by the authors in their statement.

Reform Government Surveillance seeks five areas of reform:

1. The government should codify sensible limits on surveillance, limiting surveillance to known users and eliminating bulk surveillance.

2. Executive powers should be subject to strong checks and balances.

3. Government should be transparent: it should allow companies to report demands for data and it should promptly disclose the data publicly.

4. Governments should not restrict the international flow of data.

5. Legal conflicts between different government jurisdictions should be eliminated.

I have no problem with these five reforms, but, for example, where do people get the right to “remain unobserved and unmolested in their communications”?  If we speak publicly, we give up the right to be private and unobserved.  Just ask any celebrity who’s made a mistake on Twitter (or any other public place for that matter): are they unobserved?  No!  Are they unmolested?  They may not feel like it.  Hasn’t the person who wrote this statement for the authors heard of libel or slander laws?

“A person under surveillance is not longer free.”  Strictly speaking, this is true, but does it pass the ‘so what?’ test?  Where in the US Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence is there mention of ‘freedom from surveillance’ (or observation).  No civilized society can function without its citizens being able to observe the behaviour of others.  For a starter, we would have no witnesses in court.

“Surveillance is theft” . . . and when it happens, “we are robbed . . . of the principle of free will”.  There is a leap of logic in here somewhere.  It sounds a little like the existentialist concept of ‘Other’, but even the existentialists believed in free will.

You may have read about the trial currently underway in London of two Islamic terrorists who are on trial for murdering and trying to butcher a UK soldier in the street.  One was a Christian who converted to Islam.  In his defence (he denies murder, but admits killing the soldier) he said that he is a ‘soldier’ (he never served in the military), and that Allah told him to kill a soldier in revenge for all the Muslims who have been killed.  Can we afford, as a society, to overlook the behaviour of people like that?  I don’t think so.  I agree with the eight technical companies, but not with my fellow authors.

By the way, if I had been the prosecutor in the above trial, I would have asked the defendant two questions:

One: did he ever consider the possibility, as a religious person who believes in God and knows about the devious, lying devil, that it was the devil, not God, who gave him the instruction?

Two: has he studied the Qur’an sufficiently to understand, as most Muslims do, that to kill someone is a major sin?




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