In East Germany between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi conducted mass surveillance of citizens with force and terror. Today, governments conduct mass surveillance with deceit. Mass surveillance programs have been implemented without the knowledge of citizens, and political leaders tend to follow a strategy of denial and deception when confronted with evidence of their existence.
There is a battle for the moral high ground. The NSA would have citizens believe that they are the good guys providing protection from terrorism. On the other hand, whistle blowers such as Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange, would have us believe that they are the good guys exposing mass surveillance programs.
Since Edward Snowden’s initial revelations, mass surveillance has grown dramatically. In countries such as the UK and New Zealand, governments have passed legislation to expand their spying activities. This is what I call Big Brother creep. Like the frog in hotter water, without noticing it, citizens find that through Big Brother creep, we now live in a surveillance society. Big Brother has silently crept up on us. Current levels of surveillance already far exceed that in any previous totalitarian state. Last week, a Russian journalist took his country’s intelligence service (FSB) to court for snooping on citizen’s mobile phone calls.
We now live in a society where government agency spying would exceed even the wildest dreams of the most ardent Stasi. Agencies have access to all “private” internet and mobile phone communications – including all emails, text messaging, web browsing, and social networking. Citizens have not been party to discussion of data misuse safeguards.
An almost constant stream of shocking new revelations of mass surveillance has brought about complacency. Citizens cannot keep up, so give up. A recent excellent documentary by the BBC, Inside the Dark Web, demonstrated the tapping of all internet data from the UK undersea cyber optic cable, however this news did not lead to mass citizen revolt. Some well-intentioned individuals get together from time-to-time for a day of action (such as here and here), however it hardly raises an eyebrow amongst the citizenry.
The tiny population of New Zealand missed a great opportunity this month. New Zealand was once a proud and independent nation, prepared to stand up against a superpower for their principles, such as with their 1984 anti-nuclear stance. No longer is this the case for this Five Eyes member. On 15 September, NZ resident Kim Dotcom shared an Auckland stage with Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden (the latter two by video link-up obviously). It is well worth watching here where the video starts after 20:40. The speakers exposed previously-unknown evidence of mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens by their own government. Anywhere else in the world, this high-profile speaker line-up sharing a platform would have been momentous – in tiny New Zealand it should have been historic. The NZ government’s response was disappointing – they simply denied the mass surveillance activities, then carried out a successful campaign of personal denigration against the whistle blowers. By vilifying the messenger, New Zealanders missed the message, and five days later re-elected their ruling party in a landslide election.
Through a lack of vision, a lack of courageous political leadership, an aversion for learning from foreigners, and most importantly by not being principle-driven, New Zealand missed it’s golden opportunity. Five Eyes membership is far more costly for the minor partner than what is immediately apparent.
New Zealand could have provided the world with a blueprint for the post-911 digital age. They should have conducted an open and frank public debate about surveillance to discuss how much privacy citizens are prepared to trade in return for increased security. They could have debated safeguards against data misuse. No longer can New Zealand claim true independence and principled leadership as it did in 1984.
Citizens may well accept a degree of loss of privacy in return for increased security from mass surveillance. They may not accept the trade-off. However a public debate needs to occur and intelligence agencies and political leadership must to be open and frank about mass surveillance. Through debate, appropriate mechanisms can be put in place to protect against data misuse. Government demand for more and more private information about citizens is insatiable. The current system of secret mass surveillance, denial and deceit, puts us in the realm of the Stasi. We must not let privacy become a concept of the past. We must not become complacent with Big Brother creep.