How can we decide on surveillance and privacy when we can’t see the whole picture?

“The surveillance of communications faces a legitimization crisis,” says James Losey, a fellow with the Open Technology Institute, the technology program of the New America Foundation, and currently a PhD candidate with the School of International Studies and the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden.

“Surveillance is a global concern, and the security agencies of democratic states leverage the data from information and communication technologies (ICT) companies and services to conduct bulk surveillance,” he notes, and explains: “The legitimization crisis of the current surveillance practices stems from both the scope and the shortcomings of accountability. The full extent of the different programs is unknown, limiting the ability for democratic society to evaluate current practices on rational grounds. At the same time, the extent that bulk surveillance takes place violates the right to privacy.”

In short: the legitimacy of surveillance efforts should be dependent on whether the country’s citizens support them. In order to do that, they have to know what’s being done and how. Unfortunately, in most cases they don’t know.

In the cases where some details have been revealed, it’s not thanks to the government, but to whistleblowers.

“Available transparency reports from ICT companies demonstrate the rise in government requests to obtain user communications data. However, revelations on the surveillance capabilities of the United States, Sweden, the UK, and other countries demonstrate that the available data is insufficient and falls short of supporting rational debate,” he points out in an article recently published by the Journal of International Communication.

It should be the governments’ job to provide complete and accurate information about their access to communications data and processes used to effect it, which would allow the public to make an informed decision on whether or not they should support the practices. (That is, if the government is leading a democratic nation).

Still, he points out, transparency alone is not enough to protect freedom of expression and privacy.

“Transparency provides a window into the scope of current practices and additional measures are needed such as oversight and mechanisms for redress in cases of unlawful surveillance.”

Still, it’s a necessary first step that should ultimately lead to critical debates on censorship and surveillance policies and laws.

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