What is a Surveillance State and is it Good For You?

What is a Surveillance State and is it Good For You?

There has been a lot of talk about surveillance since Edward Snowden recently leaked information about Prism. This led to other scandals such as Tempora being  revealed. What a surveillance state is and whether it is good for individuals or not  is explained in the following video:

prism and tempora causes self censorship amongst citizens trying to protect themselves and it doesn't stop big crimes


I recommend that you watch the video since the animation  depicts the subject very well but if you prefer pure text there is a transcription of the subtitles used in the video below.

A surveillance state is defined as a state which legally surveils all actions, locations, and friends of its citizens, in order to prevent crimes or in order to solve them faster. That sounds like a quite good idea for now: Crimes are being prevented and everyone is more secure. Nevertheless the term has negative connotations.

why does it have negative connotations?

One of the most important tasks of a state is to provide security for its citizens. At the same time, the state has to allow them liberties so that everyone can live their life individually. Security and liberty complement each other, but also put each other in their place, because liberty always goes hand in hand with risks, and security always limits liberties. That’s why in democracies a compromise has been established, which unites the best of both worlds. In a surveillance state, though, liberty is over-limited by security needs. And that’s already its biggest problem.

Recently, this topic was in the news regarding the so called data retention, which aimed at saving all telephone and internet connection data for six months for the fight against terrorism. And although the retention and its benefit were heavily controversial, and were forbidden by the Federal Constitutional Court, today this data retention seems almost harmless compared to PRISM and Tempora, the two surveillance programmes of the British and U.S. American governments, which affect everyone in the world – including us in Germany. That’s because those surveillance programmes not only save connection data, but also simply everything everyone of us does on the Internet, which goes through British or U.S. American servers. Every text and every picture – literally everything. Even that you’re watching this video here right now.

Some types of surveillance have already been possible in Germany for many years, for example wire-tapping of telephone calls, chats or e-mails in order to fight terrorism and organized crime. For this, in specific cases judges can order so-called eavesdropping operations. But what would happen if from now on we surveilled simply EVERY telephone call, EVERY chat and EVERY e-mail without any suspicion? Couldn’t we prevent crime and terrorism for all time then?

Maybe for a short time, but it’s more likely that advocates of this idea underestimate the inventiveness of criminals. Those who don’t want to be brought to light will always find a way, for example by strong encryption or personal conversations at locations where the surveillance state has no access. And now the only victims are completely normal, innocent citizens, who from now on are being watched by the state in everything they do.

Anyone who ever got a friend request from their mum, teacher or employer on Facebook can maybe understand how it feels to be surveilled. Do I really want my parents seeing the tagged pictures my friends made of me smoking? And do I want to get caught by my employer online when I’m perhaps not saying nice things, when I’m actually running a temperature and should be in bed? Tumblr and GAG are full of examples in which careless people harshly criticise their employer, then get fired by them in the comment area. Or stoner confessions, replied to by their parents with: ‘Get your ass home. We gotta talk.’ A surveillance state, which is always reading along, principally is nothing else but that – except that in a surveillance state one doesn’t have the choice to decline its friend request.

What results from such surveillance is self-censorship: Everything one says or does, what could be controversial, people will keep to themselves in order to avoid possible problems – even though they will assume that what they are doing is totally legal. So, even critical discussions and statements will be limited out of fear.

Advocates of surveillance argue that someone who has nothing to hide, has nothing to fear. But unfortunately that idea contains a number of mistakes. It’s about balance between state and citizens. That means that the citizen has something to fear, if he has something to hide. Is that also true for secret services whose name shows that they have something to hide? Why should someone assume that the state’s secrets are always legitimate while at the same time, secrets of citizens are in principle not?

That surveillance could be inconvenient for a single person is also ignored, which brings us back to the ‘has nothing to fear’ part. A completely innocent person has indeed to fear inconvenient ‘surveillance’. And what about governmental sanctions like custody? In Great Britain, people can be detained for up to fourteen days without being charged. Should the suspicion turn out to be unfounded, there won’t be any compensation for the imprisonment. Bad luck. The same holds true for Germany, where due to probable cause computer hardware and data of companies and private persons is confiscated – something that happens frequently! And even if the people concerned turn out to be innocent, they are left with the damage, because police can keep confiscated computer hardware and data for months and even years.

The statement ‘… has nothing to hide’ assumes that the only one at fault is the citizen – not the state. And it is also possible that as laws toughen, what used to be unproblematic, now, suddenly, raises suspicion. Or that a democratic system turns into a dictatorship, what may be currently happening in Hungary. The statement ‘… nothing to hide’ assumes, that the state always is right – even if it is mistakening or abusing its power.

In the beginning of 2012 the Briton Leigh Van Bryan tweeted about his upcoming journey to the U.S that he wanted to ‘destroy America’ and ‘dig up Marilyn Monroe’. By ‘destroy America’, of course, he meant to party and get drunk. The US immigration department which obviously scans twitter for phrases like these, couldn’t take a joke, searched his luggage for spades and sent him and his female companion in handcuffs first to prison and then back to Britain.

Even worse is what happened to Justin Carter, a teenager from Texas, who was called ‘fucked up in the head’ by a Facebook friend after a match in ‘League of Legends’. His sarcastic answer, ‘Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts. LOL. JK.’, not only got him put into jail for months but now, he also has to fear a jail term of ten years.

What was meant to be a harmless joke is loved to be misunderstood by sarcasm-resistant authorities, who follow them with serious consequences. In that case, is there any room left for sarcasm? And what effect will it have on your liberty and self-censorship if you fear that what was once private – every word you write and say – is being checked by authorities for possible law suits, and therefore possibly misunderstood?

Andrej Holm, a scientific academic in Berlin’s Humboldt University, got attention from the police after using the words ‘gentrification’ and ‘precarisation’ in an online article. The exact same words appeared in a confession after an assault on police cars in Berlin. For that reason, Holm and his family were heavily surveilled for months before he was arrested in his apartment, wearing nothing but underpants, and finally he was taken into custody for three weeks. Holm proved to be innocent, however, the damage made was irreversible. He now has to deal with the state having deeply documented his intimate life for months, including that of his family, and that they continued to do so for some time after his release.

You don’t even need to pursue the authorities’ attention, if you have the wrong name, for example. Three James Robinsons from the USA had to experience what it means to be on a terror watchlist. The first is a pilot, the second a lawyer, and the third a year old boy. And all three have been suspected to be terrorists and had to endure intense inspection or even not being allowed to fly. Although all three protested against such treatment, nothing changed. Only after they ‘changed’ their name in bookings – like ‘Jim’ for ‘James’ – were they allowed through. What is a terror watchlist worth, if it punishes the wrong people, and what conclusions can be made on the reliability of other forms of surveillance?

A further problem is the abuse of data – and that does not only mean the sale of private addresses for advertising purposes, as is perfectly legal in Germany’s registry offices, but also the usage of private information discovered through spying such as affairs, sexuality or political convictions. Who knows about your private life has power over you, and nobody knows this better than the victims of communist East Germany’s intelligence service or that of another German rogue state. The German police enlisted known and suspected gays in the 19th century to ease prosecution under a law forbidding gay sex. Those lists came into the hands of the Nazis, who first tightened the law, and then took ten thousands of men into psychiatric custody and castrated or killed them in death camps. Nobody thought this would happen as they started the so-called ‘rose lists’, so this became an important memorial against data collection.

Concerning Nazis – what opportunities would the jews have had to escape from Hitler’s Reich with false documents, if there had been biometric passports and networked surveillance systems on every airport and border back then? Aren’t we already preparing for the future prosecution of minorities with this? Politicians, such as the former German minister of the interior Wolfgang Schäuble, always rejected such comparisons with the message, that a fall-back into the Nazi’s system in today’s Germany would be unthinkable. But how can he be sure that here in twenty or thirty years’ time no other rogue state would be established like now in Hungary, or that Germany will not be taken over by some angry stranger? A state of law must not only care about security – it has to take care that its methods will never be abused against its citizens.

A surveillance state is also described by George Orwell in his novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’: A state forcing its citizens to act within the law by total surveillance, controlling language, suppressing sexuality and staging war and terror to justify surveillance. The saying of surveillance critics, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four was not supposed to be an instruction manual’ is meant seriously. Many of Orwell’s fictions became reality: The programmes PRISM and TEMPORA are surveilling everything you do on the internet. Because of GPS and smart-phones, your location can be queried at any time. Sexuality is being suppressed to prevent crimes which are often entirely unrelated. Cameras surveil public space and identify license plate numbers, faces or even ‘suspicious behaviour’ automatically. War reports are manipulated, and public opinion is controlled by it, like for example the alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq.

The pursuit to protect people can turn out to be more damaging than any damage avoided. Permanent surveillance restricts our liberty, causes self-censorship and paranoia and costs a lot of tax money without being shown to be useful. It’s likely that surveillance will rise within the coming years. The reason why every private conversation in the world is not yet being surveilled is not due to respecting privacy – it is simply not possible, yet. But technology will progress enough soon, and the question is how we will deal with it. Do we want to live in a world, in which security and liberty are equally valued? Or in a surveillance state, in which liberty itself is suspicious and has been suppressed in the pursuit of security?

What do you think? Is surveillance good or bad for our society, or are we already on the way into the surveillance state?