We are under constant surveillance. Our phones can be tapped, our emails read and our movements tracked through leaky mobile devices and widespread video surveillance.
We sacrifice our privacy for the security it can offer. Police tracked down Omar Hussain after his terror attack in February thanks to video surveillance. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that soon after the attack, 48 percent of respondents said they supported more public video surveillance, in a Megafon poll for TV2.
The public is also generally in favour of online surveillance. In March, a Wilke survey for Jyllands-Posten newspaper found that 45 percent of Danes were in favour of letting the military intelligence agency FE tap people’s phones without having to ask a judge first. And back in August 2013, a YouGov poll for metroXpress found that 48 percent had no issue with letting intelligence agencies spy on people over social media.
Should we be so willing to sacrifice our privacy in the name of security and safety? Niels Bertelsen, spokesman for the IT trade union Prosa, is concerned that authorities are gathering evidence that could be used against us at a future date. This undermines the cornerstone of Western justice systems in which we are innocent until proven guilty.
“In essence, these laws criminalise all people in Denmark and assume that everyone is guilty,” he says.
Freedom for safety
Surveillance is often sold as necessary to public safety, suggesting that people with nothing to hide have nothing to worry about. But Bertelsen says that this argument is misguided, because the general public is still not aware of the extent to which their private information is retained. If they were, their opinions would be different.
“The problem with data surveillance is that you can’t see it. People don’t know what is going on. But if you told the postman to copy and store all the letters that he delivers every day, there would be public outrage. Because people can’t see the surveillance, the effect is different. When you actually tell people what information is being recorded about them, they are shocked.”
Anders Bjerre from think tank called The Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies (CIFS), agrees.
“People are used to surveillance. There was debate about the introduction of the CPR number and how much information was held via this system, but now that debate is over. CPR, credit cards and social media have all made people accustomed to being watched. We might protest at first, but we soon become accustomed to it. In the context of Facebook, people actually want to be watched. Danes in particular have a history of acceptance towards being watched.”
His colleague at CIFS, Klaus Æ. Mogensen, shares the view that we should be more critical of the surveillance systems that are in place. His concern is that while governments use the information relatively benignly now, the situation might be different if a new type of government took over.
“If extreme right-wing parties were to take charge, what would they use surveillance systems for? That is something to worry about. If this situation became a reality, we could find ourselves in a society similar to East Germany, where the Communist party kept any potential critic under surveillance. But far more surveillance is possible with today’s technology then was possible back then.”
Political extremists could certainly do damage to liberal democracies with the surveillance tools now available. The small European country of Macedonia is currently experiencing turmoil following leaks showing that the government has kept almost 20,000 of its residents under surveillance in order to manipulate the media and courts.
New surveillance laws often follow terror attacks, and both the Danish and French governments proposed new rules following their respective attacks this winter. Some say, however, that these are not pragmatic methods to prevent terrorism, and are unlikely to be effective.
Following Hussain’s attack this February, the Danish police asked the government to reinstate so-called session logging of internet traffic. This would require internet service providers to keep a record of their customers’ internet metadata that, in theory, reveal which websites they visited.
Session logging was first introduced in 2007 to comply with an EU directive on internet surveillance that was itself drawn up following the 2005 London bombing. It was roundly criticised, however, because the information that was stored was often useless – you might know which website was visited, but not which page and by whom – and simple tools could hide internet searches and traffic.
In 2012, Rigspolitiet, the national police, revealed that over 3.5 billion pieces of information were being stored each year, but that in only one case was the information useful in an investigation. In March 2014, the government determined this was out of proportion, and decided to end the practice. The same year, the EU annulled its internet surveillance directive after European courts ruled that it violated fundamental rights.
The session logging now demanded by the police is far more wide reaching than its predecessor, and was met with widespread concern. Twenty organisations – among them the heavyweight Confederation of Danish Industry – called for the government to ask the European Commission to investigate whether the practice would violate the EU human rights charter.
Even if the police and government use the information wisely, the enormous databases of information risk being hacked. According to Mogensen, intelligence agencies in the US and Europe routinely access these immense data logs illegally, while their governments turn a blind eye.
“Often the government allows them to do things that are against the law. There is also a history of politicians lying to the public in the name of what they believe to be the greater good. So we shouldn’t always trust authorities to stay within the law, even though that is what they say they are doing.”
Surveillance does not always have to take the form of the goliath Big Brother. Little Brother uses surveillance and hacking to protect the people, too. Take the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed man who was shot eight times while fleeing a policeman. If it weren’t for a video taken by a passer-by on a mobile phone, the policeman might not now be charged with homicide. The local mayor later announced that officers would wear body-cams in future.
Bjerre agrees that, in some cases, surveillance can serve the public good.
“When it comes to surveillance of big business, banks and politicians, for example, most of us would agree that surveillance should be increased. In terms of certain societal issues such as exposing cheats and fraudsters, perhaps more surveillance is necessary and not less. Surveillance and data retention can be extremely useful.”
Surveillance is inherently neither good nor bad – it merely carries risks. But we can’t make an informed decision about what level of surveillance is acceptable if we aren’t aware it’s going on in the first place. We need to understand how and why our lives are being watched before asking about the greater implications. We should be sceptical without being paranoid. Because whatever we do, surveillance is here to stay.
“I doubt that politicians will stop increasing surveillance. There might be backlash and issues, but surveillance will only increase,” says Bjerre. M