How and Why the Benefits of Mass Surveillence are Overestimated While the Costs are Undermined

Published 2020-09-02 on Anjan's Homepage

How much surveillance till we are safe?

Proponents of the current mass surveillance state are quick to point out that there is a trade off between security and privacy. The argument is - we live in such a dangerous world, we need to trade all if not most of our privacy for some sense of security. However, in this “trade off”, there is no criterion for when the surveillance state has failed. Recall in January 2021, thousands of Trump supporters raided the capitol hill building. No one in the mainstream media has suggested that the world’s most well funded and well equiped mass surveillance state had failed at preventing this insurrection. Quite the opposite, every single national threat is treated as an advertisement for further privacy violations even though previous privacy violations have not delivered on their promises of security. There must be discussion of a criterion for when the surveillance state has overstepped and criterion for ending the surveillance program in order to properly address this trade off. When politicians bring up security without this criterion, it is a method of sandbagging and fearmongering to prevent further discussion.

Not placing bounds on surveillance is preventing us from addressing social issues

After the capitol hill insurrection, many people drew a contrast between how black lives matter was treated by the police state in the Summer of 2020 versus the insurrectionists on capitol hill. Even though the vast majority of black lives matter protests were peaceful, they were treated unjustly by the police state in many cases This was partly because of racial prejudice that exists in the justice system but also because black lives matter protestors were actively calling for the defunding of police. To protect their massively inflated budgets, the police state unfairly targeted black lives matter. It’s not the danger these events presented that called for the amount of force used in each event but their political ambitions. In many cases, the FBI would use facial recognition to find people participating in the black lives matter protests that had not paid bail. It’s likely that the fear of surveillance caused the same communities most effected by the police state, unable to exercise their rights for change. Self-censorship as a result of intimidation by the surveillance state is scarier than any state censorship because self-censorship is largely invisible. When the state censors a book, it makes the library’s “National Banned Books” list and it often causes the material to be more popular than before 1. However, the self-censor is more brutal than any censor could ever be - state that the library will provide police with records of which patrons take out which books and watch as the most controversial books are left unread 2.

Self-censorship means reading your own text with the eyes of another person, a situation where you become your own judge, stricter and more suspicious than anyone else. You the author know what no outside censor could ever discover: your most secret, unspoken thoughts which nonetheless you feel must be obvious to others “between the lines”… Therefore, you attribute to this imaginary censor faculties which you yourself do not possess, and to the text a significance which it actually does not have. For your alter ego pursues your thoughts ad absurdum, until the dizzy end where everything is subversive, where to tread is dangerous and condemnable.

Source: The Most Dangerous Censorship - Edward Snowden

This self censorship is more pervasive and should scare anyone that values democracy. One cannot state that citizens have a right to protest and right to read (among other rights) if the intimidation presented by mass surveillence is so great that citizens are afraid to exercise those rights.

In a Canadian context, the CSIS (Canadian spy agency) often spends it’s valuable resources intimidating climate change activists and first nations communities 3. Climate change is a national security threat and will cause massive social unrest. However, with society’s psychology surrounding the causes of social unrest, it is likely that this will be blamed on people having too much privacy rather than our inability to discuss the root cause of these issues. In the pursuit of peace with justice, we must acknowledge mass surveillance for what it is - a tool to preserve the status quo and silence movements for change that address the root cause of issues.



Librarians understand the threat mass surveillance presents to academic freedom and actively work to improve their technology around emerging privacy threats:

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