Due to courageous actions of Edward Snowden, it is now known that the US government stores data from all our electronic and phone communications. The BBC reports that most of the information about what we share via phone, e-mail, virtual social networks, etc, can be accessed by the US government if it chooses to do so. This affects not only American citizens, but all of us. Indeed, because of US law, foreign citizens who use these services (for example if you have a gmail or facebook account no matter where you are based) have less protection than american citizens. Of course, it’s not just the US government: the UK is part of the team.
I want to make 3 points that I haven’t often seen mentioned, but I think are important.
1) Whether or not one thinks that total surveillance is a good thing, the fact remains that the program was kept a secret from the people and implemented without public information. If we as a society agree on surveillance in exchange for more security, then so be it; but it has to be consented by a democratic majority and not decided in secret by top US government agency officials. Even defenders of communications surveillance should realize that implementing these programs without public consent, is not the right way to do it.
2) The fact that it is now public the US/UK and other governments kept this a secret together with the fact that there has been no backlash upon the recent revelation, is very dangerous. This is like a thief who steals in secret, is seen stealing, and then finds out that no one cares enough stop him/her. It is now explicit for government and citizens what the power relation is. They have crossed another line (by which I mean: lied to the public, and not the surveillance per se) only to find that no one is interested in pushing them back. The result is a steady step in the direction of undemocratic decision making. One question is: what will be the next line to be crossed?
3) A common argument used by government officials is that law abiding citizens have nothing to worry about. Barack Obama, and William Hague (UK foreign secretary) made exactly this point. This is (A) false, and (B) missing the point. As for (A) “false” you don’t have to try hard to find examples of government agencies making mistakes with information that they get (some fatal). Or consider the danger of a leak not of the existence of the program, but of the information of our data, contained in it? Or consider what can happen if this program or its data falls in the hands of even less democratic leaders than the ones we already have… And as for (B) “missing the point”, as I mentioned before, the problem is that all of this was implemented without public consent. But there is another problem: the knowledge of being watched changes the behavior of all of us – even law abiding citizens. Maybe next time you’ll think twice before sharing something private with a friend via e-mail, or maybe you’ll avoid certain keywords in your communications for fear of triggering automatic monitoring systems. Whatever it is, people act differently when they are being watched – and now we know we all are.
So there it is. Whatever the trade-off between privacy and security is for you, this much is true: governments collect information about all our communications; lied to the public about it; and as a result abused, increased and consolidated power at the top. On the other hand, as someone else put it: Good news! we’re not paranoid.