Whose security is this anyway?

June 19, 2013

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?

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MatthijsK
, 2013-06-19 17:25:49
(reply)

The introductory chapter of “Surveillance and Democracy” (2010, eds. Haggerty and Samatas) contains some highly points about this (I apologize for the length):

"The first point to note is that today many surveillance are technological. Groundbreaking surveillance initiatives emerge out of laboratories with each new imputation of computer software or hardware. These augmented technological capacities are only rarely seen as necessitating explicit policy decisions, and as such disperse into society with little or no official political discussion. Or, alternatively, the comparatively slow timelines of electoral politics often ensure that any formal scrutiny of the dangers or desirability of surveillance technologies only occurs long after the expansion of the surveillance measure is effectively a fait accompli.

By default, then, many of the far-reaching questions about how surveillance systems will be configured occur in organizational back regions amongst designers and engineers, and therefore do not benefit from the input of a wider range of representative constituencies. Sclove (1995) has drawn attention to this technological democratic deficit, and calls for greater public input at the earliest stages of system design (see also Monahan in this volume). And while this is a laudable ambition, the prospect of bringing citizens into the design process confronts a host of pragmatic difficulties, not the least of which are established understandings of what constitutes relevant expertise in a technologized society.

Even when surveillance measures have been introduced by representative bodies this is no guarantee that these initiatives reflect the will of an informed and reasoned electorate. One of the more important dynamics in this regard concerns the long history whereby fundamental changes in surveillance practice and infrastructure have been initiated in times of national crisis. The most recent and telling example of this process occurred after 9/11 when many Western governments , the United States most prominently, passed omnibus legislation that introduced dramatic new surveillance measures justified as a mean to enhance national security (Ball and Webster, 2003; Haggerty and Gazso, 2005; Lyon, 2003). This legislation received almost no political debate, and was presented to the public in such a way that it was impossible to appreciate the full implications of the proposed changes. This, however, was just the latest in the longstanding practice of politicians embracing surveillance at times of heightened fear. At such junctures one is more apt to encounter nationalist jingoism than measured debate about the merits and dangers of turning the state’s surveillance infrastructure on suspect populations.

The example of 9/11 accentuates the issue of state secrets, which can also limit the democratic oversight of surveillance. While few would dispute the need for state secrets, particularly in matters of national security, their existence raises serious issues insofar as the public is precluded from accessing the information needed to judge the actions of its leaders. In terms of surveillance, this can include limiting access to information about the operational dynamics of established surveillance systems, or even simply denying the existence of specific surveillance schemes. Citizens are asked (or simply expected) to trust that their leaders will use this veil of secrecy to undertake actions that the public would approve of if they were privy to the specific details. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated time and again that this trust is often abused, and knowledge of past misconduct feeds a political climate infused with populist conspiracy theories (Fenster, 2008). Indeed, one need not be paranoid to contemplate the prospect that, as surveillance measures are increasingly justified in terms of national security, a shadow “security state” is emerging – one empowered by surveillance, driven by a profit motive, cloaked in secrecy and unaccountable to traditional forms of democratic oversight (see Hayes in this volume)."

The benefits of total surveillance? Only for those in power. | Jaap-Henk Hoepman - on security, privacy and…
, 2013-10-06 15:08:54
(reply)

[…] We all knew that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian civil war (and from my point of view the question who used it is really irrelevant…). Still it took ages to act, and even then the action was only a halfhearted attempt. According to experts, a clear separation between investment and commercial banks is necessary to prevent a new economic crisis. Still, no fundamental changes to the banking system have been made. Why not? Because banks have tremendous power and resist the change. (See also this earlier post.) […]