Monday, December 9, 2013

Surveillance

Over 500 writers, many world-renowned, signed onto a statement protesting mass surveillance as a threat to democracy, and calling for the recognition of an international bill of digital rights.
In recent months, the extent of mass surveillance has become common knowledge. With a few clicks of the mouse the state can access your mobile device, your e-mail, your social networking and Internet searches. It can follow your political leanings and activities and, in partnership with Internet corporations, it collects and stores your data, and thus can predict your consumption and behaviour.
The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body. In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.
This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes.
A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.
* Surveillance violates the private sphere and compromises freedom of thought and opinion.
* Mass surveillance treats every citizen as a potential suspect. It overturns one of our historical triumphs, the presumption of innocence.
* Surveillance makes the individual transparent, while the state and the corporation operate in secret. As we have seen, this power is being systemically abused.
* Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property: it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else: the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.
WE DEMAND THE RIGHT for all people, as democratic citizens, to determine to what extent their personal data may be collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored.
WE CALL ON ALL STATES AND CORPORATIONS to respect these rights.
WE CALL ON ALL CITIZENS to stand up and defend these rights.
WE CALL ON THE UNITED NATIONS to acknowledge the central importance of protecting civil rights in the digital age, and to create an International Bill of Digital Rights.
WE CALL ON GOVERNMENTS to sign and adhere to such a convention.
As a general matter, it's hard to disagree with the propositions that mass surveillance is a threat to freedom of thought, and that people should stand up to protect their right to privacy.
I find this statement disappointing on a couple of levels. Even though it might have been drafted by some of the best writers in the world, it suffers from verbosity. The statement uses a lot more words than would seem to be required to decry the threat posed by unrestricted mass surveillance. Contrast the numerous paragraphs of the writers' statement with these few elegant words:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
As a piece of writing, it's hard to imagine how the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution could be improved. It contains just the right tone of absolutism, proclaiming as the writers do, that people have an inviolable right to personal privacy, but limiting that right to protection only against "unreasonable" searches and seizures, thus providing room for interpretation according to contemporary standards. By trying to universalize basic human rights to freedom and privacy, and adapt them to the digital sphere, these renowned writers instead mangled this Constitutional precedent.

To understand the failure of the writers' statement to grapple with the real problem of surveillance, all you have to do is imagine the example of a couple of plotters working in secrecy to build a bomb, which they intend to set off in a public square. What happens when the police receive a tip about such a plot? Are they supposed to respond that they must respect the thoughts and personal environment of the plotters? Of course not. Nearly everyone would agree that surveillance is appropriate in those circumstances. In a few words enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, the Constitution manages to deal with this problem that the writers entirely avoid. The Fourth Amendment neatly balances the inviolable right to be protected against unreasonable searches, with the state's ability to conduct such searches based on probable cause.

I'm not quarreling with the proposition that the NSA may have gone too far in collecting data on citizens in the U.S. and around the world. That is a debate that we should and are having, and basic human rights should be respected in the process. All I'm saying is that 500 famous writers don't seem to have succeeded thus far in crafting a better statement of how to protect those rights than the one that is already embodied in law.


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