A wake up call?

A couple of years ago I was teaching a class in IT law, and the subject of surveillance came up. I tried not to let my own opinions colour the debate, and listened while one student after another talked quite happily about the benefits of things like CCTV, and how the needs of security and the fight against terror and crime meant that surveillance was a generally good thing, beneficial to society. The students were mostly from affluent Western countries – the UK and Western Europe for the most part – and they all seemed generally content with the situation. Eventually, however, one of the students stood up, and told the rest of them, to all intents and purposes, that they were all mad. He didn’t want the government watching him. He didn’t trust the police to use surveillance just for the ‘right’ purposes.

He wasn’t generally one of the most loquacious of my students – indeed, most of the time he was very quiet. He did, however, have one distinct advantage over the others when looking at this kind of thing: he came from one of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, a place where the current government is in many ways even worse than before the fall of the Soviet Union. He knew, from first hand experience, the way that this kind of thing can be – and is – used in ways that control and oppress. He said, very directly, that you can’t trust a government.

The others said very little in response, except a weak attempt to say ‘well, our governments aren’t like yours’, to which he laughed, wryly. ‘They may not be now, but what about the future?’.

A wake up call?

That’s where the wake-up call comes. In yesterday’s election in Greece, the far right Golden Dawn party gained a disturbing 7% in the elections, and held rallies that had distinct echoes of Nazi Germany.

“No one should fear me if they are a good Greek citizen. If they are traitors – I don’t know,” their leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos told the media. The words, the images – and indeed the election results – have sent shivers down a lot of spines, not just in Greece but around the world.

Human Rights lawyer and blogger Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) tweeted about it (and later blogged – here):

“Anyone else think rise of European far right makes UK’s continued support of European human rights system seem quite sensible?”

He’s right. It does. It should remind us of the origins of a lot of the human rights conventions, declarations and so forth in the second half of the 20th Century: as a reaction to the atrocities of Second World War. We recognised the needs of people for protection from their own governments – because governments can’t be trusted to protect people at all times. Watching and listening to the spokespeople of the Golden Dawn should remind us very directly of that – as should, on a smaller scale, the calls from some of the Tory backbenches and some of the media for the government in the UK to move ‘to the right’.

Part of the ‘standard’ lurching to the right includes crackdowns on crime – and that, in turn, can often be used to justify more surveillance. It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of words that might be used to support this kind of thing – most directly, in this case, the proposed Communications Capabilities Development Programme (see the ORG summary here).

Moves like these should be resisted at all costs. Whatever systems we put into place will be hard to reverse – and won’t just be used by the ‘good guys’ to get the ‘bad guys’. Even if you do trust this current government (something which a lot of us find very hard to do), whatever we do will be available for others later. Whoever those others might be.

As Bruce Schneier put it, in one of my favourite quotes:

“It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state”

He’s right. We shouldn’t. Those election results from Greece should remind at that most forcefully. Wake up. Smell the coffee.

15 thoughts on “A wake up call?

  1. Oh tapping, you should come to Ireland, we’re the tapping experts -you’d be surprised, we tap each other for fun (no kidding). We even have anti-terrorism legislation giving the State all sorts of powers, we perform legit data retention, give our internet users “strikes”.. oh and have a Sopa too!

    About Michaloliakos, he ‘s been a clown ever since I can remember myself, everybody always pointed at him and laughed. Their ideals are more or less “it’s my way or the highway” and his party only managed to get into the parliament because people felt that was their only way to react. Still, with only 21 seats it will be as though he never entered – mind you in the case that no government forms in the next 48 hours (with such low percentages it can only be formed by multiple party coalition), in all probability the Greeks will be running back to the polling stations in 2 months from now… in which case we might have to kiss Michaloliakos bye bye.

    Fun times!

  2. these Far right greeks are really laughable, when I read the article about chasing immigrants and darkskinned people, are they blind enough not see there are dark skinned greeks, unless they
    haven’t looked at their faces in the washroom before going out, they have to face the situation as
    it is Euro zone was tough for them, now they’re shown the way out, Turkey for goodness sake is
    1000000 times stronger than Greece economically, militarily and more civilised, and they were refused, so GREECE has to face it and take it !!!!!

  3. Paul,
    I am not sure I can agree. The far right has always been around. They seem to be gaining traction, but then they seem to every time there is an economic issue. Look at Haider et al in Austria. Look at Le Pen in France. They are an issue, but they are not the main threat. THe main threat is what you mentioned in your blog but did not develop.

    When your students were asked to defend a democratic system, especially one using surveillance, all they could do is mutter platitudes about their government. What worries me is none of them, liiving in a democracy could sustain a coherent argument about why democracy does not work like the tribal states that have emerged in Central Asia. In a democracy, we rule and are ruled in turn. We have majority rule and minority rights. In a democracy, any of us could be in the minority at any given time, which leads us to be restrained and measured when we are part of the majority.

    In a democracy, we have the rule of law, the right of redress, and we have free and fair elections. In ex-tyrannies that are basd on tribal allegiances, those do not exist. The tribe decides what is most important and what is equitable. The issue of equality before the law, as is found in a democracy, is not found in a tribe. The tribe has a hierarchy.

    Finally, the issue of technology needs to be addressed. Technology, as such, is neutral. It is a tool and with benefits and dangers according to its use. What makes it dangerous are the people who use it. What is dangerous, at least according to Hobbesa and those who founded modern liberalism, are people. Because people are dangerous, we need to create institutions and societal edifices to restrain those people. To put it succinctly, if all men were angles we would not need government (pace James Madison). Thus, the problem of surveillance is not the technology nor is it the government, which we can trust so long as it is democratic, follows the rule of law, and is response to the rights of its citizens, it is whether the people in government can be trusted. Most importantly, we owe it to ourselves to be vigilant because things can change and we can change things, if armed with the right knowledge.

    We need to remain vigilant, because that is the price of freedom. Technology may enable that or it may hinder it, but it will not change it.

    1. I don’t disagree with you at all – the underlying point I was trying to make was indeed that vigilance is the price of freedom, but that this vigilance is as much about watching our governments as it is about watching the perceived ‘bad guys’. The wake-up call of the far right as far as I’m concerned isn’t so much about the far right per se but that the people who govern aren’t always (or even often) to be trusted.

      As for whether my students should have been more aware – well, yes they should! They were law students, though, not politics students…. but that’s not really an excuse either!

  4. “Too many wrongly characterize the debate as ‘security versus privacy.’ The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.”

    “Some clever answers:
    ‘If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me.’
    ‘Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition.’ ‘Because you might do something wrong with my information.’
    My problem with quips like these — as right as they are — is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.”

    (Bruce Schneier The Eternal Value of Privacy” Wired 18.5.06 http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/securitymatters/2006/05/70886 ).

    1. Many thanks – as you might guess from my quotation from you, I find your arguments compelling – not just on this!

      The way I see it, the whole privacy vs security argument is false: real privacy can be a support to genuine security. I’m giving a presentation on this and other false dichotomies about privacy, called ‘privacy is not the enemy’, at the end of the month.

      Thanks again for the comment!

    2. I disagree. What is privacy in a society with the rule of law? Where there is the rule of law, the public is involved. We have an illusion of privacy, but we do not have privacy as a natural right. At best, we have it as an extension of a political right. To put it directly, no matter how private the location, if you violate the law, your privacy disappears and the law will arrive.

      Also, the choice of liberty or control is not sustainable. Liberty from what? To do what? For what reason? Control of what? Ourselves? We do not choose when we are born. What we do control is more an illusion than a reality. Our liberty, such as it is, is bounded by the laws of the regime. We are free within a context because we live within regime. We surrender or reduce our natural rights to have the political rights we receive from regime.

      As to surveillance being the hallmark of tyranny, I am not sure the connection can be made. Tyrannies have existed without extensive surveillance. Moreover, the ancient Greeks believed the tyrant was the least free because he was forced to be a private person rather than being public and being able to act in the public without concerns. A tyrant faces constant threats and concerns because his role in the regime, which is structured to suit him rather than the common good.

      As to security and privacy, again, this is apples and oranges. The United States, or any country, at war is going to do things differently regarding its citizens. Most of the security measures in place are as a result of the military activity, short of a formal declaration of war, that has given the Federal Government these powers.
      The citizens, through laws democratically agreed and mandated, have surrendered power to the state to undertake certain measures to protect them. To the extent that those measures violate the laws they are to be resisted or changed. However, to insist on individual privacy as superior to the common good is to invert the relationship to the detriment of all parties. What we need to understand is why government is constituted so that we can understand why the laws are good and the surveillance is not evil. After all, we let the librarian know what books we have checked out. The clerk at the market knows what food we have bought. We are hardly private when we act in the public domain.
      One could argue that we have never had privacy and it is a modern epiphenomenon of the modern state. In other words, privacy is a function of the state, it did not exist before the state. If that is the case, then we are trying to do something, undemocratic, by trying to limit the state’s power and our rule of law by curbing the rule of law and the state’s power by means other than those set out within a democracy.

      Instead of trying to argue that privacy is a natural right so as to resist or reshape our relationship with the state, we should act politically and publicly to reshape the state. However, we can only do that if we understand a good, a common good, that we can convince others to accept, follow, and support politically. In such an argument, privacy is only a means to an end, it is not an end in itself ( a further indication it is not a natural right) and as such it remains as hollow as the concept of technology only filled with meaning by the intent of those using it. However, that intent is not a function of privacy and it is that intent that we should be discussing.

      1. Thanks! I’ve replied more directly on your other comment – take a look! these are all very deep and important points – the bottom line for me, however (as I’ve explained there) is one of assumptions. What can loosely be described as ‘police states’ assume citizens are in general untrustworthy, and put in systems accordingly – while what can equally loosely be described as ‘liberal’ states assume the opposite – that the ‘criminals’, ‘subversives’ and ‘terrorists’ are very much the exception, and that most people need, deserve and ‘reward’ being treated with respect, including respect for privacy. What’s more, respecting that privacy builds the trust, builds the respect, and ultimately supports a more positive, peaceful and effective society…

        ….but these are very, very big questions, and it’s hard to be definitive about any of it…

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