In a world where the internet rules, neither privacy nor security can be guaranteed. Even though governments have taken key stances on these issues, the public worry is that they or other autonomous groups are exploiting and violating our rights and freedoms for their own ulterior motives. The reality is that any politician who promises privacy is lying. The very purpose of a government is to serve and protect the people they represent – there would be no way to do this without the government having accessible data on the livelihoods of their constituents.
The balance between public privacy and security is thus a central debate in the organization and operation of government bodies. Naturally, the public will always have a general distrust for the government as there are secretive bodies which operate in the grey areas of law and regulation, potentially infringing on the interests of the people.
Recent years have sparked active debate regarding the balance of privacy and security within democratic societies. One of the most influential events influencing this dialogue was Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing incident with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013, Edward Snowden fled the US in order to expose documents revealing the NSA’s mass surveillance programs which where operating without public knowledge and in violation of the US constitution. These surveillance systems essentially tracked and maintained surveillance on everyone in their country as well as foreign targets – whether they are under suspicion for some wrongdoing or not. For his call to ethical clarity, Snowden was charged with theft of government property and two additional charges under the Espionage Act, facing a total of over 30 years in jail.
The major influx in government surveillance practices especially in North America came in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. American intelligence agencies were taken aback by the fact that the terrorist plot leaked through their safety nets, ultimately causing immense grief and severe financial repercussions. Their failure to recognize and eradicate the threat that did so much damage pushed them to undermine their own constitution to form secret programs to impose mass surveillance on everyone in their own nation and to target groups abroad as well. The paranoia of what or who may be lurking behind closed doors irks even the highest in command of the world’s most powerful people.
Not too brush aside the fact that these mass surveillance programs are and always were unconstitutional and thereby illegal, they were at first used in the best interest of the people. However, as their intended terrorist targets evolved into more complex and less traceable methods of organization, the temptation was there to use the surveillance on a domestic level to pre-emptively identify wrongdoing. Although efficient, the American government does not have the right to seek for evidence of wrongdoing without reasonable and practical suspicion.
Despite controversy and tension caused by Snowden’s whistleblowing and asylum in Russia, he continues to remain active in the global debate surrounding the social debate between privacy and security. The reality of these social issues can take several forms in different circumstances.
For example, facing a global pandemic, governments are tasked with identifying and controlling the spread of the coronavirus from patient to patient and among those who are infected and yet still unaware. This task however, requires several means of government surveillance through monitoring and even as specifically as using heat-sensing cameras. For each issue to which privacy and security pertain, neither can be ensured unless the subjected citizens settle for a compromise. On the one hand, the government cannot promise absolute security without absolute knowledge of their subjects, which would inherently be obtained through total surveillance. On the other hand, the subjects can only enjoy absolute privacy if they sacrifice their security up to chance.
In another scenario, China is well known for its surveillance tactics which are used to ensure subordination of citizens and to repress any potential protest or uprising. Most recently, the people protesting in Hong Kong for their democratic liberation from Chinese rule have been subject to a surveillance state who threatens and punishes them for exercising their human rights and freedoms. China has consistently and relatively openly implemented both domestic and foreign surveillance systems to hold a grip on its people and to persist with the status quo of maintaining and stabilizing an oppressive and unjust state.
When issues are talked about on a global scale and really considered by governments and policy makers, the people are often overlooked and put aside as simply being subjects to government rule. In reality, the people are the true stakeholders in social, political, and economic policy, and must take a stand for their own best interests, as this is how democracy is sprouted and how it is conserved. The people must not be intimidated by governments, but rather must hold them accountable when they stray off the course of collective interest.