The Problems With Mass Surveillance

404567359_8f744452fd_oCCTV by Pablo Tenorio (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Surveillance is quite a confusing topic to talk about. While we like the benefits that it bring to the society, we are also fearful of its implications. This confusion brings us to a bigger problem; that most people lack a compelling account to when and why surveillance is harmful. In my previous blog post I have tried to raise awareness to the issue by referencing a popular TV Show Mr. Robot and the controversial 2013 NSA Scandal. In this post, I am going to talk about the reasons as to why I think mass surveillance is more destructive, rather than beneficial to the society.

Mass surveillance has became a prominent issue after the onset of two world wars (Conniry 2000). Governments starting from the UK started implementing CCTV cameras to deter or solve threats to their security systems. Below is a podcast I made to briefly outline an example of the danger of mass surveillance from its own history.

 

Over the years, however, these methods of mass surveillance like CCTV cameras has proven to be ineffective. A former UK Shadow Home secretary in a 2009 Metropolitan Police Report said that CCTVs “creates a huge intrusion on privacy, yet provides little or no improvement in security”. In addition to this is the possible dangers that it can bring to the one being watched. Richards (2013) introduced two real dangers of surveillance;

a. ‘Menaces our intellectual privacy’, and
b. ‘Gives the watcher a power advantage over the watched’. This power can then be used for blackmail, persuasion or discrimination.

Graham et. al. (1995) talked about this power years ago when the concept of mass surveillance just started to develop. Britain had just implemented CCTV cameras around London in early 1990s as a way to control national security.

These (surveillance) systems now give many unregulated individuals or agencies considerable, largely invisible, powers to decide who has free and unhindered access to an area and who deserves closer scrutiny and control. These powers are inevitably based on their own prejudices about the links between the visual appearance and the behaviour of people. (Graham et. al., 1995)

Surveillance is thus, almost always accompanied by human prejudice. Take for example the well known racial profiling by police officers. A study of CCTV surveillance in UK showed that black people are more likely to be surveilled than any other races. It must also be mentioned that these police officers did so by no apparent reasons to justify their suspicions.

The more agreeable side of us would argue that intrusive, government-implemented surveillance is okay because we think that we have nothing to hide from our own government. This reasoning might be invalid. In the US alone, there are countless federal crimes listed over 27,000 pages of the United States Code, as said in this article.

If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations.

We all have a set probability of having something that we unknowingly have hidden from the government, whether we want it or not. Some people (or organisations) have realised the flaws of surveillance systems and dedicated themselves into making this issue known to the public.

3F09BBED-BB4E-49EC-9307-42C61F6357EB
A sticker (at Deakin) that was conveniently pasted on the table I was settled in as I was writing this post, 9 September 2017

Crimethinc is an American (I’ve been thinking of ways how this sticker has gotten here) organisation that critically analyses the systems that we live in, including the government. I can be sure that this particular sticker mocks the US Department of Homeland Security by the sarcastic tone of its content. As articulated by the sticker, if the people in power wrongfully administer suspicion against us on the basis of their own insecurity, it should be reasonable for us to present them the same amount of suspicion as to how they are using their power.

(568 words, not including citations and captions)

References

Conniry, K. (2000). National Security, Mass Surveillance, and Citizen Rights under Conditions of Protracted Warfare.

Graham, S., Brooks, J. and Heery, D. (1995). Towns on the television. [Newcastle upon Tyne]: Dept. of Town and Country Planning, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Richards, N. (2013). The Dangers of Surveillance. Harvard Law Review. [online] Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2239412

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