Published On: Tue, Feb 12th, 2013

Is ‘Big Brother’ Style Government Spying a Threat to the Innocent?

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big-brother-government-spyingThere have been a few stories about mass surveillance of the general public by government intelligence agencies in the press already this year. Twitter’s transparency report released in late January showed that the site had a 20% increase in government requests for its users data. Google also released data recently showing an increase in government requests, and it seems likely that this trend was also replicated on Facebook and across the web. These requests came from all over the world, but the bulk were made by the US government.

More recently it was revealed that one of the world’s top international security companies has created a piece of software to analyse billions of entries across social media to extract personal information, including a person’s location, to create profiles on members of the public, to track people, and even to make prediction about people’s future behaviour based on their social media posts. They also said that they had shared this software with the United States government. (see: Secret Big Brother Spy Software Revealed).

It seems that mass surveillance of the general public by government agencies is increasingly becoming the norm, not only in repressive dictatorships which have always sought to spy on their citizens, but also in western democracies.

Although mass surveillance of the general public through systems is certainly controversial, many people accept it as an inevitable part of the modern world. In most countries the use of such techniques is legal, and is becoming more and more prevalent. Some activists complain, but the general public does not seem to be hugely concerned – no large protests or popular compaigns against it, little political debate and seemingly little demand for it.

I would like to try to avoid value judgment on this new software, or any other mass surveillance technology, in this article. There are certainly some strong arguments for their use to prevent serious crimes, and to help locate fugitive criminals. But it seems to me that many people simply do not understand the possible risks enough to make an informed decision about whether or not this kind of thing is necessary.

There is an attitude amongst many that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you do not need to worry”; that only criminals and terrorists have anything to fear from this kind of technology. If a computer analyses some of your posts without you knowing about it, then it hasn’t disturbed your life in any way and no harm has been done – right?

In fact there are risks that such ‘big brother’ style government spying can pose to innocent members of the general public, and this is something that more people should be aware of.

At the midlest end of the spectrum the threat posed by such software is the invasion of privacy. Most people don’t mind the idea of a computer automatically analysing their electronic communications, and would think that if they haven’t committed a crime then it is unlikely that it would ever go further than this – to a human investigator reading their private messages. This is very naive, especially if you have ever gone to a protest. It is well documented that police use video cameras to document the identities of people attending protests, and have in the past mounted undercover investigations to infiltrate protest groups even if no crime has been committed. This kind of technology represents a massive reduction in the cost, in both time and money, associated with surveillance. In just a few clicks a human operator can access an overview of your life, and in just a few minutes per day can scan through all of your most important communications. Are we really willing to accept that the cost of being politically active is submit to your communications – even the most private, embarrassing and emotionally sensitive ones – stand a realistic chance of being viewed by strangers?

Apart from the creepy and unpleasant feeling of knowing that this could happen to you, there is also the possibility that this could dissuade people who value their privacy from attending protests or becoming political active. That would be damaging to democracy.

But there is also a threat beyond this. Because software such as riot is not only used to track known criminals, but also to identify patterns which suggest the possibility of criminal behaviour. This means that ordinary people, who may have done nothing wrong, could find themselves placed on watchlists or subjected to invasive police investigations based on the say so of a computer – even if no complaint has been made against them by a human, and no crime has been recorded. Once your name is on a list of people to watch, you could find yourself left open to police harassment – perhaps not even deliberately on the part of the police, but just by your being flagged as a ‘person of interest’.  In my humble opinion this ‘pre-crime’ aspect which is the most worrying.

And then of couse there is the fact that these systems will be open to abuse. As James Ball notes in The Guardian:

It’s easy to believe those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear – and most of us are essentially decent people, with frankly boring social network profiles. But, of course, to (say) a petty official with a grudge, almost anything is enough: a skive from work, using the wrong bins, anything. Everyone’s got something someone could use against them, even if only for a series of annoyances.

And petty officials are only the very mildest end of the spectrum of possible abuses. It is easy to imagine many more, from out of control racial profiling to corrupt police officers bullying witness into giving the desired testimony to – well the possibilities are endless.

To what extent these threats to the public balance out against the potential benefits to security and crime-fighting is impossible to say because – and this is why I personally have a problem with these programs – they are run in secret. There is little or no information in the public domain about the manner or extent of governments’ use of these techniques.

In order for the public to judge whether or not they are willing to sacrifice their privacy and potentially subject themselves to intrusive investigations they need information. They need to know what kind of crimes are being investigated using this software, what information is being accessed and by whom, how may crimes are being prevented or extra prosecutions secured which would not have been possible without it, how many people have their data accessed by a human operator each year, and so on and on.

But all of this information is kept secret in the interests of ‘national security’. This not only prevents the public from being able to give informed consent for authorities to use this kind of technology (thus breaking the democratic social contract between government and the people), but it also prevents any kind of proper oversight to monitor its use and prevent abuse by the people who have access to it.

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