Human Rights, Science & Tech, World

Mass Surveillance and You

Mass surveillance is something we often hear about in passing; the topic seems to be pushed aside by other news stories and events all too often. We allow governments to indiscriminately surveil their whole population to, seemingly, prevent terrorism and other crimes. And we have seemingly convinced ourselves that this is the right thing to do. That this is the way to ensure our safety alongside our rights and freedoms.


Mass Surveillance: Wait, Who’s Watching Me?

At this point, probably everyone. The United States for sure is watching you; we have Edward Snowden to thank for this knowledge. In 2013, Snowden revealed various secret NSA programs that were infringing on people’s right to privacy. And I mean everyone’s. The PRISM program, for example, allowed the United States to collect and store internet communication from at least nine major internet companies — 98% of the data reportedly coming from Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft.

Now, this program focuses on data coming into the United States. This includes data passing through the U.S. bound for another country, data coming from a different country meant for a U.S. recipient, and data that leaves the U.S and comes back in after passing through a different country’s server. Basically, the U.S. has access to large amounts of personal data considering most of the world’s communication flows through the United States.

Mass Surveillance is a World-Wide Issue

Of course, it’s not just the U.S. who is unsupervised with how they collect and use information. Alongside the U.S., we have China, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and Thailand. These countries were called ‘endemic surveillance societies’ by Privacy International in their 2007 survey. As the surveillance in these countries increases, the laws in place to protect privacy decrease.

Hell, there have to be some regulations in place to protect our privacy, right? That was a survey from 2007! Arguably, it’s gotten worse considering technology has improved even further but safeguards have not kept up. To draw in more Western countries and their abuse of surveillance we can look to Five Eyes. Alongside the U.K. and the U.S., we have Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was recently revealed that these countries would spy on the one another’s citizens and then they would share the information. Effectively, they sidestepped their own domestic regulations that were put in place to prevent them from spying on their own citizens. So, even though we have safeguards in place, they’re not exactly being followed.

But I Have Nothing to Hide!

But don’t you? Everyone has something they don’t want the world to find out. For instance, your browser history. There may not be something illegal on there per se, but after a quick search, I’m sure you may find something incriminating you wouldn’t want out in the world for your family and friends to see. Or maybe there is something in your photos? Perhaps you had a rather risqué chat with someone online. Something in your personal life that would be difficult or embarrassing to explain because it could ruin your reputation. So, why would you want the government knowing about your porn preferences or having access to your private pictures?

By saying you have nothing to hide and accepting they are surveilling you, you allow the government to collect and analyze the most intimate parts of your life.

But… it keeps us safe, right? From Terror?

Eh. Individual, targeted surveillance does. It can help gather evidence on suspected criminals and prevent crimes. However, mass surveillance? It’s hard to say. In fact, there are some reports that suggest that mass surveillance has no record of stopping large terror attacks. Though, it is tricky to say if any have been thwarted; they supposedly like to keep things secret. But, it’s easy to see the alternative reason to why they treat us all like criminals.

Wait… What Are We?


Usually, your rights are restricted when you’re suspected or convicted of a crime. Mass surveillance treats us all as criminals; they’re just waiting for us to commit a crime. Instead of following the long-standing principles of law that says surveillance should be targeted towards individual suspects and authorized by an independent authority, we are all scrutinized without real reason. Our online activities, phone calls, credit/debit transactions, texts, and whatever else leaves a digital trail, are tracked and stored.

Now, there isn’t a man sitting behind a computer clicking through all of this information. It’s a computer analyzing and tracking all of this information for later, nearly unrestricted, access. They can track you through facial, voice, and text recognition while also tracking how you travel and your relationships. Based on nothing but this information, they can link you together with someone who may actually be suspicious. Maybe you changed your route; maybe you talked to a stranger in passing; or maybe you signed onto a certain forum at the same time as their suspect. These coincidences, daily occurrences, and changes in your habit can all become evidence that can be used against you whether you’re guilty or innocent.

Try to Explain This

Of course, if you’re innocent but arrested, the case against you will most likely be thrown out. No problem! Except you have to deal with being arrested and charged. This means you have to explain to your family and friends that it was a mistake; you may have to deal with public backlash because they’re sure you did something wrong because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have been arrested; you may even lose your job. One little mistake on the government’s part can result in your life being ruined just because your data seemed suspicious.

Is it Chilly in Here?

Mass surveillance isn’t just about stopping crimes. Mass surveillance has a Chilling Effect on people. When we’re being watched, we tend to change the way we act. Like when a police officer starts driving behind you. You slow down and start to worry about the consequences even though you’re doing nothing wrong. The same goes for mass surveillance. We change the way we speak and interact with each other in order to avoid any potential suspicion. There is a fear of being abused, discriminated against, threatened, exploited, or being caught up in an error brought on by the surveillance.

After the Snowden leak, the MIT conducted a paper on sensitive search terms before and after said leak. They found that after the leak people were less likely to use these search terms because the feared getting in trouble with the U.S. government. The knowledge that they were being surveilled brought on self-censorship. Mass surveillance becomes a form of social control. We become dissuaded from exercising our legal rights. It’s no longer just about privacy rights being impacted. Our ability to speak out against our governments, to voice our opinions and express our ideas, to associate with whomever we want, are all hindered by the idea that someone is watching and analyzing our movements.

It is privacy that allows us to develop our opinions, creativity, and relationships. Without privacy, we become a surveillance state that follows a status quo the government approves of.

Well, now what?

Stay informed about what your government is doing and don’t change the way you act. We can’t justify mass surveillance as a way of protection when it impedes on our lives. Do we really fear terrorism and other crimes so much that we would give up our rights and freedoms? If yes, then what exactly are we protecting?

About Jacque Swan

Jackie is a Canadian who is currently studying professional writing and is aiming for law school in the coming years. She has an interest in speculative fiction and current events-two subjects that seem to mesh well together. Her goal is to help people understand the world and not accept everything at face value. Jackie is also currently working as a freelance writer and editor.

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