Are we sleepwalking to a surveillance state?


Earlier this week, I was invited to speak at the Hacks/Hackers event titled “Who Is Spying On You? Government Surveillance in South Africa” at ThoughtWorks’ offices in Braamfontein. One of the disturbing take-aways for me, thanks to a very insightful presentation from the Mail & Guardian’s Vinayak Bhardwaj (pictured above),  was both the apparent scope and opacity of the South African government’s surveillance programme.

Although our laws impose a series of checks and balances, the institutions charged with ensuring necessary transparency have utterly failed to do so and citizens are left in the dark about how much surveillance they are subject to.

At the same time, South Africans’ outcry against government surveillance was largely limited to the so-called “Secrecy Bill” which has been passed by Parliament but not yet signed. It wouldn’t be surprising if the government decided to hold back on the Protection of State Information Bill’s signature until after the May elections out of concern for the outrage that would lead too, particularly in the politically charged months ahead. That, alone, says something.

A common reaction to state surveillance programs and private companies’ efforts to increase our publicity for commercial gain is that you shouldn’t fear publicity and scrutiny if you have nothing to hide. This argument is flawed for various reasons. One reason is the assumption proponents of this view make about your entitlement to privacy. Another reason why this argument is flawed has to do with trust. More directly, the extent to which you may mistrust the people conducting the surveillance.

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Security researcher, Steve Gibson, pointed out a terrific response to this argument in June 2013:

A possible response to surveillance is increased publicity, perhaps even radical publicity. After all, if you don’t feel the need to hide anything, there is little value in secretly attempting to uncover your secrets. This is probably a pretty simplistic and naive approach to the problem but it is something a couple people have proposed in the context of the broader privacy debate. The biggest challenge to this approach is whether we trust the people doing the surveillance or monitoring our activities to act responsibly with our personal information and treat it appropriately.

Whether this is about our society’s maturity or human nature, this doesn’t seem to be an assumption we can safely make. On the one hand we still have tragic stories about people’s lives being thrown into turmoil when they are outed against their wishes (or make the decision to step out of the closet themselves). Consider whether governments can be trusted to use our personal information and what they learn about our activities solely to tackle the threats they claim motivate their activities or whether we may find that our proclivities which have nothing to do with child pornography, terrorism or tax evasion are still used against us because a ruling authority disapproves of them?

Until we can be confident that our rights will, in fact, be respected and protected by governments and private companies, alike, we don’t have the freedom to be as open as they seem to expect us to be. Whether it is intolerant citizens, Facebook or the State Security Agency, our freedom to be open will be frustrated by our seemingly justified mistrust for some time yet.

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