Governmental organizations having access to our private data is a reality of our time. Is Big Brother really watching us? Are there any upsides to living under surveillance?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain total privacy in the digital age: information about who we talk to, what we buy and the media we consume is largely available through our internet history and card transactions. Our location and movements can be pieced together through cell phone triangulation and IP address. We transact more and more of our lives online, and no matter how vigilant we are about online security, intelligence bodies have shown remarkable resourcefulness in gaining access to private data.

Encryption Is No Guarantee Of Privacy

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Most recently, the FBI demanded Apple enable them to unlock an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook’s, one of the gunmen responsible for 14 deaths in San Bernadino last December. Apple initially refused, prompting the FBI to obtain a court order to force their hand. Apple defied the order, arguing that this action would not only render their devices less secure for their customers, it would set a dangerous legal precedent, suggesting that they might later be ordered to “create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking.” However, in the end, their stance was moot: on March 28, the FBI announced they had cracked the phone with the help of an unnamed third party. While many might argue that the FBI’s actions were justified in the war against terrorism, their actions in this case also demonstrate that citizens can’t expect standard safeguards to protect their information from unauthorized access — but this is hardly a new development.

After 9/11, the NSA began a program of warrantless surveillance, including wiretapping phone calls. The scope and technical nature of the NSA’s efforts is still classified, but, according to whistleblower Mark Klein, they did have full access to AT&T’s internet traffic. The NSA developed their techniques and philosophy as an offshoot of the “Total Information Awareness” initiative, which aimed to sift through all available data to find and foil terrorist plots. Modern surveillance isn’t a process of selecting and targeting individuals, but trawling all available data for red flags.

In the UK, this may soon become explicit policy. The British government is currently planning legislation which would require internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of users’ internet use. This bill is unusually unpopular, supported by only 6% of the population according to a survey by ComputerWeekly, despite the fact that it’s only real deviation from the status quo is that the surveillance would be legal and done openly.

Worldwide Attitudes To Surveillance

Civilian opinions towards such activities vary between countries. Amnesty International conducted a worldwide survey investigating attitudes towards US surveillance of international internet traffic: unsurprisingly they found that “71% of respondents were strongly opposed to the United States monitoring their internet use.” This disapproval was reflected in EU law last year, when the European Court of Justice determined that the US “does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data” due to their surveillance policies. The dissolution of the Safe Harbor agreement created a tricky obstacle for transatlantic companies to navigate. Mass surveillance has come at the cost of a significant hit to the US’s international reputation.

It’s understandable that the survey’s respondents took a poor view of foreign interference, but do they take the same attitude towards their own governments? The Amnesty survey found a wide variance of opinion, where the French and Brits swayed more towards tolerance of surveillance, while Americans, Canadians and Australians tended to be against it. In all the countries surveyed, respondents were more accepting of their governments keeping tabs on foreign nationals than natives, with the US and South Africa showing the highest in-group bias. Overall, only 26% of the population support government surveillance – a troubling statistic in light of the status quo.

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Can Surveillance Be Justified?

While the thought of Big Brother surveying every personal phone call and internet search is distasteful to most, the devil’s advocate would argue that government surveillance activities haven’t been fruitless. NSA director Keith Alexander asserts that his organization’s surveillance operations have foiled terrorist activity over 50 times since 2001. In 2013, President Obama felt his administration had “struck the appropriate balance” between respecting Americans’ civil liberties and privacy and seeking out potential terrorist threats, and reiterated Alexander’s figure, stating “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted.” In light of this claim, many who responded to the 2015 Amnesty survey expressing their disapproval of warrantless surveillance may, in fact, owe their lives to it. So why do we still feel hostile towards activities which demonstrably keep us safe? To throw in an increasingly used maxim, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

Despite the fact that we are an open book to our governments, the reverse is not true at all: and it’s hard to trust organizations that refuse to say what (and who) they are looking at and why. However, the nature of surveillance means that to be effective, it has to be covert: releasing too much information would give would-be terrorists added means of evading capture.

With increased terrorist activity worldwide, governments are under intense pressure to root out terrorists before they attack, and this means keeping an uncomfortably close eye on its citizens. Government surveillance as a fixture in our society is unlikely to change any time soon, so perhaps the only available option besides a petition for full political restructuring is to trust that our democratically elected overseers truly have our best interests at heart. In this case, the only outstanding question is whether the government’s idea of your best interests align with your own.

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