Digital Surveillance

Who is Watching Me?

Jul 22, 2019 | Article

A Glimpse

Digital technology has negatively impacted human rights through the use of digitally facilitated repression. Authoritarian regimes are using digital surveillance against human rights defenders in various ways such as censoring expression, blocking or filtering access to information and monitoring online activity. A good example of this would be the case of China where mass digital surveillance alongside censorship and social monitoring is a means of social and political control. China employ digital police who monitor online activity and create reports for the government. Human Rights watch reported that in February this year 580 social media accounts were suspended by China’s Cyberspace Administration after allegations that users ignored their social responsibilities, abused their influence and stained the honor of the state. Additionally, human rights offences are often committed in the name of security and counter-terrorism and have changed government capacities in law enforcement and foreign surveillance. The human rights impact for many of these changes were not fully appreciated before they were put into practice. Although governments are now fully aware of these implications, they are unwilling to restrain these new capacities.

Other examples of surveillance would be that of France, where a correctional court in Meaux found a 32-year-old man guilty of advocating terrorism after he liked a piece of ISIS propaganda on Facebook. Additionally in the Netherlands there is a new law: Aftapwet, where the government is officially allowed to break into any communication and listen in. These incidents are occurring frequently and internationally. It is clear that this subject legitimizes further discussions about ways in which peace and human rights activists can defend themselves against digital surveillance.

So what do you think about digital surveillance?

Read the above with a friend and have a conversation.. there’s enough there to get you started. And while you do, consider whether I am watching you through your webcam, looking at the website you just visited, and ticking-off a spreadsheet to record your undesirable activities.

If digital surveillance still doesn’t scare you just a little bit, then maybe, just maybe, you’re not watching enough television. There are a number of tv series that use this premise to string together exciting techy zoom sequences and fast-moving plot connections that keep you thrilled and eating popcorn, while reminding you each episode of the inherent dangers a fully integrated surveillance system brings to the table.

Digital surveillance doesn’t just mean recognising your face in a public place and tracking your movements, it also includes all other aspects of your digital footprint, which in essence, is everything the world knows about you. Your human connections and their versions of you, are not equal partners to your official records which are now digital.

Think: your computer records and activities, your web searches, your phone calls and other network surveillance, corporate surveillance, malicious software, policeware and governmentware. We’re talking everything from your own identity to your governments’ military plans.

As desirable as surveillance systems may be for specific groups, they brings with them a real danger of abuse. Should access to this data fall into the wrong hands, assuming it was in the right hands to begin with, identity theft and people manipulation would become reading pickings for any slightly above average criminal organisation, not to mention the damage abuse could inflict on entire countries and regions. The rewards of successful abuse are very efficient and destructive by design.

Post 9-11 saw a surge in support for digital surveillance around the world, bringing with it a powerful justification that is hard to argue against. And as unfortunate as it may sound, our modern reality dictates that it would be dangerous to argue against the need for some sort of digital surveillance.

The potential threat level that a random individual can now pocess is simply not comparable with a few generations ago. Rapid technological progress has changed the ‘game’ and redefined our consequences scoreboard. It is therefore prudent and desirable that certain dangerous elements are kept track of.

Think: nuclear materials, explosive materials, diseases, genetic knowledge and so on.

9-11 also saw an increase in hard-line rethoric that muted many of the noises against digital surveillance and nutured a temporary culture of disinterest in ‘softer’ problem-solving approaches.

Think: political parties.

With digital surveillance we have the ultimate form of policing, and though it may be prudent in some cases and it’s core purpose is to protect, it remains a reactive philosophy that brings with it a brand new set of potential problems. Big ones.

The problem of abuse is most easily imagined, yet it also has an intrinsic flaw in its one-sidedness. It remains so far removed from a solution to the causes of the problems that it aims to prevent, that it may even compound the problems that it prevents instead of making their causes go away.

This begs the question of whether equal effort is warranted in expending the same amount of societal energy and resoures to tackle the origin of the problems that digital surveillance owes its justification to.

It stands to reason that for every digital surveillance system an equal and opposite effort is put into not just researching and protecting its negative human rights implications, but also into investigating and tackling the root causes behind the problems it has been tasked with protecting us against.

Any other approach is essentially naive and will only ebb away at the most important societal ingredient that it owes its existence to; trust.

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