With the recent revelations about the extent of (US) surveillance, I noticed that everybody seems to take the benefits of surveillance for granted. Government is challenged about the legality of surveillance, not the necessity or the benefits of surveillance. Given this state of affairs, it is hardly helpful to try to explain the necessity and benefits of privacy protection. We need to challenge the benefits and necessity of surveillance instead.

These days, I sometimes jokingly say that

I have no objection against surveillance cameras and microphones. Provided they are also installed in the boardrooms of banks, large corporations, and in the government corridors of power.

To be clear, I don’t mean to invoke the age old argument of “if the government wants transparency from us, we want transparency from the government in return”. Instead, I want to show that surveillance does not equally target each and every citizen, and only aims to achieve a very restricted understanding of ‘security’.

Surveillance by intelligence agencies is primarily aimed at homeland security (i.e. terrorism). With this aim, the focus of the surveillance is almost by definitions on people that don’t subscribe to the basic values of our society. These days, that includes large swats of Muslims for example. The goal is to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Surveillance by law enforcement aims to solve crime. However, it seems that the kind of surveillance we are being subjected to (camera surveillance, Automatic Number Plate Recognition, monitoring of social networks, etc.) mainly targets ‘common’ people. It appears as if the goal is to protect the people in power from the people not in power.

Notwithstanding the huge impact terrorist attacks and brutal criminal activity have, the scope of the direct, immediate, consequences is still limited to a really small number of people. Also, the resulting direct damage is relatively small, especially compared to the amounts spent to prevent terrorist attacks.

I think there are other interpretations of ‘security’ that have a much larger impact on a much larger group of citizens (and to which surveillance is not applied). Consider for example such diverse categories as ‘basic security’ (having a reasonable guarantee of having access to the basic living needs), ‘job security’ (having a reasonable guarantee of having a job), ‘economic security’ (having a reasonable guarantee of stable markets), ‘legal security’ (having a reasonable guarantee that you are being treated fairly by government), etc.

Many of these categories are provided for by many governments in varying ways, without explicitly referring to it as security (except, perhaps, for ‘social security’). However, there is very little active protection when these ‘securities’ are being challenged by other, possibly criminal, parties. Most certainly, we don’t see a need to apply the same forms of intrusive surveillance to prevent such crimes, compared to the level of surveillance applied in the name of homeland security. Given the graveness of the recent economic crisis, and the extent in which this crisis is affecting each and everyone of us in our everyday life, wouldn’t it make sense to apply the same level of surveillance to the perpetrators of these crimes?

Or are these people to close for comfort to the powers that be…? Would that (finally) drive home to them the negative consequences of pervasive surveillance?