The Dangers of Mass Surveillance

Anthony Jeeves Peries discusses about the ultimate watchdog used in society; he explains why Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are the greatest heroes of our generation.

Edited by Isabel Aruna.

Mass Surveillance
Mass Surveillance, Illustration by Ray Carter

In 2013 Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the NSA, who had previously also worked for the CIA, leaked tens of thousands of documents to journalists, showing that the intelligence agencies of supposedly the most liberal states in the world had built a system of mass surveillance greater than anyone could have imagined.

This system allowed governments to secretly monitor online traffic. It can look at who went on which websites, and what they did, saw or said; it allowed government agents the power to intercept the private communications of anyone, by text or phone call, by email or web forum. It was the ultimate police watchdog. Except for one minor detail, even though the information had been gathered, it had not led to the prevention of a single immanent terrorist threat on US soil which was its purpose.

Chelsea Manning, is a former US Soldier who worked as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Manning used the Wikileaks platform to leak classified and unclassified but sensitive material surrounding the Iraq war. This included video of controversial US airstrikes, including the July 12 2007 strike in Baghdad, in which at least 12 people were killed, all of whom were civilians, including 2 journalists, and two children were also seriously wounded after an Apache Helicopter used anti-armour 30mm cannon rounds to shoot at a group of people on a street, and then at a school. The video, which is available in its entirety online, caused outrage, as many people were forced to confront the reality of the US Army’s involvement in Iraq.

Manning also leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, which enabled the public to see what goes on behind closed doors in international politics, it is widely thought that the publication of these cables directly contributed to the Arab Spring. Manning was arrested, charged and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. Manning’s incarceration has received global attention, as her transgender status has meant that she has been subjected to various unusual conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time and being kept in a cell without access to clothes or even her glasses because her jailers claimed she was a suicide risk. In April 2011, 295 American academics signed an open letter stating that her treatment is unconstitutional.

So why is it important to know about these things? Who cares, what difference does it make? Simply put we should all care. The actions of these individuals all fall under the umbrella of Journalism. It is essential in order for us to know who we want to vote for, or what policies we support or oppose, what the consequences of those actions are. These individuals all now live very difficult lives, a sacrifice they knew was going to be the price of their actions. They did what they did in order that we might know the reality of our governments, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in mass surveillance watches a film called “Citizen Four” which is the story of Edward Snowden told by the journalists who he contacted in order to arrange his colossal data leak. The film gives a grim depiction of the vast scale of mass surveillance in the Western world, and the dangers it poses. For those of you who want a shorter version, there’s also a ted talk Snowden gave called “here’s how we take back the internet”.

I think that Snowden summed up the issue of mass surveillance best when he said “our rights are important because we don’t know when we’re going to need them.” That is the basis of my opposition to mass surveillance. Arbitrary surveillance undermines our right to privacy, and once you start to lose your right to privacy, your other rights become more threatened, and I don’t much like the sound of losing my right to a fair trial, or my right to freedom from torture. The danger is that if we sign over all our rights in order to protect ourselves, we’ll end up sleepwalking into a dystopian future, voluntarily destroying the society we’re trying to protect.