Surveillance leads to collateral damage in all of society

We live in a surveillance state where you must be aware that everything you say or do can be used against you.

The institutor of the secret police, French Cardinal Richelieu is attributed to having said…

“Give me six lines written by the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough in them to hang him.”

Thats really it, isn’t it? Can you explain all your words and actions? Especially if they are taken out of context or associated with some sort of pattern haphazardly connected to bad things? Can you prove your innocence?

What does such a society do to people?

Personally I am conducting even rather mundane conversations by encrypted channels these days. Using encryption is, in itself, a good thing. But what is disturbing is that I feel that I have to do it.

Using the phone, apps on a smartphone or tablet or just surfing the Internet we all have to consider our actions in advance. (What did you google today?) And it is not just about us. With government agencies building charts and sociograms from our communications, what we do can have consequences for our friends, family and others.

German studies about data retention shows that even “passive” surveillance will have a chilling effect on human behaviour. It makes us avoid doing things and to communicate about things that are sensitive, that could be misunderstood or that are rather private.

This form of self censorship is becoming more common the more the surveillance state is rolled out. But it is very hard to estimate what effects it will have on society.

Terrorist attacks can be measured in value of damaged property and in the number of injured or killed people. (For instance you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. You are also three times more likely to be killed by lightening than by terrorists. You are even more likely to die from falling of a chair than from terrorism.)

Even if those numbers are more or less neglectable, they are numbers. And those numbers will be used (normally out of context) by politicians as an excuse to expand mass surveillance.

Here we have a problem without an adequate solution. On the one hand you have soft values that are very difficult to measure (the effects of self censorship). On the other hand you have something rather well-defined (the number of people killed by terrorists).

I’m not an utilitarian–but if you are going to get politicians and bureaucrats to back down, you need facts and hard numbers. Sorry to say, but it’s all about beancounting.

Nevertheless, there are serious consequences from self censorship. It’s damaging to democracy. It’s toxic to culture. It’s harmful for business. It has a chilling effect on all of society.

This ought to be a given subject for a scientific dissertation.


One Response to Surveillance leads to collateral damage in all of society

  1. Totalliberal October 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    If everyone today is a criminal (which might be true, I know I am), then what we need is less bans and prohibitions! Making law enforcement less effective is not a feasible solution!

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