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Does surveillance mean the death of democracy?

Civil liberties activists are busy writing the script of how digital surveillance killed our democracies. Yet, their true enemy lies elsewhere. Português. Español.

Manuel Arriaga
29 October 2015
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Happy surveillance.

Happy surveillance. Flickr/Wrote.Some rights reserved.

In computing, a "segmentation fault" occurs when a program tries to access information that it has no business accessing.

Emotion vs. reason. Instinct vs. analysis. Heart vs. brain. Perhaps there is no other dichotomy in our intellectual history that still holds similar sway. From an early age, we are taught to dissect what goes on in our minds and neatly compartimentalise it into these two boxes. When, in 2015, we survey the challenges facing our democracies, it is easy to slide back into this old habit. Technology is undoubtedly sexy, but it is this infantilization of the public that is the real issue.

The revelations by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and other modern-day heroes have painted a bleak image of the relationship between citizens and the state. Most of us are by now painfully aware of the extent to which governments are able to invade, record and document our lives. To many observers, the resulting dystopian image is one where our political and civil liberties have been taken hostage by a complex web of all-powerful computers, state-of-the-art data mining algorithms and the unaccountable three (or, in the British case, four)-letter agencies operating them. It is easy to feel dismayed. How might our most fundamental freedoms possibly survive this technological onslaught?

As I will argue in this year's World Forum for Democracy, we are doing our democracies a disservice by letting our thinking take this direction. Yes, it is hard to escape technology in 2015. Computers, in their multiple (and increasingly discreet) guises, certainly are everywhere. However, their pervasiveness in the world is only matched by their ubiquity in our minds. Our culture's technophilia readily endows ‘intelligent’ algorithms and powerful machines with something resembling human agency. A story where technology is a—if not the—leading actor in bringing about the demise of values we hold dear never fails to convince an audience. We are now in the stage of collectively writing the script of how digital surveillance brought about the death of our democracies, it would seem.

I would like to propose that the true enemy of our democracies lies elsewhere. Sure, the never-sleeping eye of algorithms and supercomputers can be a serious threat—but what created the conditions that allowed it to come into being in the first place? The answer is twofold, but, in both instances, clearly points away from the cool seductiveness of technology towards the inevitably murkier domain of human emotions and beliefs.

First, a world where machines operated by unaccountable arms of the state roam free, “collecting it all”, is only possible when citizens live in fear. Our political leaders have successfully taught us to be afraid of a grab-bag of ill-defined external and domestic menaces. Our political leaders have successfully taught us to be afraid of a grab-bag of ill-defined external and domestic menaces. Without that, all those blinking lights in the depths of Utah wouldn't be allowed to record the most minute aspects of the lives of ordinary citizens. An always-changing cast of foes, together with masterful management of public sentiment on the part of politicians and the ever-present eagerness of much of the media to exploit fear as the most efficient way to generate thrills, keeps the perceived threat level high and justifies all of it. A fearful public is one who easily turns to the state in search of parental protection, regardless of how invasive the behavior of that father figure might turn out to be in its quest to “keep us all safe.” In other words, a fearful public is one who has forgotten the meaning of freedom.

Second, there is a broader issue with the way we relate to the world of politics that also greatly enabled the rise of this Orwellian apparatus. When it comes to politics, we have developed an unhealthy belief in delegation. In particular, we have bought into the myth that voting every couple of years somehow ensures a reasonable level of political accountability. No matter how much evidence to the contrary the world presents us with (and, let us be fair, in recent times it has proved remarkably generous in that regard), we remain just as eager to believe that we have effective oversight mechanisms in place which will keep politicians in check.

Abusive surveillance practices are but one consequence of this serious misconception. This reality will only change when we move beyond stale notions of elections as the gold standard of political representation and collectively embrace innovative ways of giving ordinary citizens real political power, as explored in my short book Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics. A fearful public is one who has forgotten the meaning of freedom.

To summarize, I believe that, when we talk about widespread surveillance and the stupendous technological apparatus enabling it, we are, in fact, mistaking the symptoms for the root of the problem. Technology is undoubtedly sexy, but it is this infantilization of the public—the turning of citizens into fearful, power-delegating children—that is the real issue. Certainly, we should be embracing perfect forward-secrecy encryption and advocating regulatory efforts such as the Snowden Treaty. These technological and regulatory measures can help us reclaim some of the freedom(s) we have lost.

However, let us not lose sight of what lies at the foundations of this 21-century silicon and fiber optic panopticon. It might be a tall order, but, when we succeed in creating an informed and self-governing citizenry, those mighty machines will promptly come tumbling down.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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