Tech & Rights

#MeAndMyRights: Mass Surveillance, Privacy and Democracy

During this series we've learnt about mass surveillance, privacy and democracy. But how do they all fit together?

by Israel Butler

The last few articles have been a bit theoretical. I’ve tried to explain how privacy is vital for democracy for two reasons. First, because it allows us to create new rules, which I called social innovation. Social innovation relies on privacy because without privacy we are subject to social control and reluctant to criticise or disobey majority opinions. Privacy allows opinion shapers (like philosophers, inventors or campaigners) to create new ideas about how we should live. And it allows the general public to evaluate those ideas free from the judgement of others. This is how our social customs and laws evolve over time. The second reason privacy is vital for democracy, is because it allows opinion shapers (like journalists or activists) to investigate and research whether our leaders are obeying existing rules. Without privacy, opinion shapers expose themselves to reprisals from the people they are investigating.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

How does mass surveillance fit in to all this? Almost everything that we do nowadays involves the use of telecommunications technologies, and particularly the internet. It’s not just that we do most of our communicating using phones, messaging, emails or social networking sites. We use our mobiles, laptops, desktop computers, tablets, smart watches and e-readers to read the news, watch films, listen to music, shop, pay bills and taxes, do our banking, read books and magazines, make appointments with doctors or counsellors and research our interests. And we also feed these devices with a lot of information that then travels over the internet to be stored on a database somewhere. Like our location, our diet, our exercise routine, our heart rates or the routes we take to work.

Mass surveillance means that this information is recorded and is accessible to the security services. We no longer have control over who has access to information about us. Mass surveillance has killed privacy over the internet. This might not be very important if we didn’t use the internet. But today almost everything in our lives takes place over the internet or is recorded on the internet. And that means that mass surveillance is strangling social innovation and democratic accountability.

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.

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