Magazine article New Internationalist

Does the Government Have the Right to Monitor Private Emails?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Does the Government Have the Right to Monitor Private Emails?

Article excerpt

Surveillance expert Robin Tudge and Professor of Conflict Beatrice de Graaf go head-of-head.

NO

Robin

A defining element of the kinds of abusive, totalitarian regimes seen in our lifetimes has been all-pervasive surveillance - be it in East Germany, J Edgar Hoover's FBI, or Qadafi's Libya - including the routine steaming open of people's letters, tapping phone calls, or sifting through their emails.

But Western governments have passed law after law, ranging from the UK's new bid to monitor all our online usage, to the US Patriot Act, the US's impending Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, and the EU's Data Retention Directive, all supposedly protecting us from terrorism and crime in the age of global communications, but really demolishing our rights to privacy and to live free of this blanket, state-directed paranoia in which people's lives are shut down on suspicion alone. These are freedoms that previous generations paid mightily to protect, but which governments are now casually destroying.

Sifting through private emails and phone calls only obscures the genuine threats and throws up false leads, while laws allowing such practices become warped by function creep. The UK's Regulation of Investigative Powers Act was brought in to guard against terrorism and serious crime, but is mostly used to monitor fly-tipping or to see whose children live in a school's catchment area.

If we lose the right to privacy and allow all-pervasive monitoring then people will fear becoming a target for greater state scrutiny and curtail their own political, creative and social engagement: all while the state remains unaccountable and democracy silently dies.

This lack of transparency leads to corruption - the state becomes the one with something to hide - while regimes increasingly use surveillance to crush the growing dissent. Ultimately, the seeds of oppression reap revolution - see the Communist Bloc, the Arab Spring, even News Corp - but only after countless innocent lives have been lost or compromised and blood has been spilled on the streets.

Beatrice

Rather than dramatizing the cumulative effect of privacy and surveillance failures - which still do not amount to the level of repression exercised by regimes in East Germany or Syria - experts should be much more vocal on the lack of effect of these monitoring efforts and on the real reasons why they are used.

First of all, we cannot make a case for the rise of a bloodstained Big Brother state (yet) in Western democracies. Yes, there have been numerous insults, wrongdoings and police failures in Britain, France or other European countries, let alone in the US. But these do not compare to intentional killings by Syrian secret police, or to the psychological warfare communist countries once waged against their populations.

Second, the general views about repressive surveillance will be swept away with one single terrorist attack, or even thwarted attack.

Third, leaving security out of the equation exposes a black hole of uncertainty and fear that cannot be filled by human rights or freedom principles alone, however noble they may be. It just does not work that way in populist politics any more.

Being too dependent on monitoring is the real problem. In a world of economic cutbacks, the danger of over-reliance on privatized and computerized security looms large. Israeli airports have exchanged detectors for highly trained, schooled and professional human officers - because they produce better results.

If experts are not able to educate and inform the public about the real costs of security, If we lose the right to privacy and allow all-pervasive monitoring then people will fear becoming a target for greater state scrutiny and curtail their own political, creative and social engagement

- Robin

ROBIN TUDGE is the author of the NoNonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, inspired by his campaigning for N02ID. …

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