FOR Government Surveillance

AGAINST Government Surveillance


We should not be naïve: the world is not a safe place. Terrorist organisations such as the so-called Islamic State aim to cause massive loss of life, and they’re not restrained by ethical or moral considerations. Foreign governments have demonstrated their willingness to deploy deadly weapons, including radiological and nerve agents, in order to target dissidents and political opponents within our borders. Drug cartels have access to military-grade arsenals, and are willing to go to brutal lengths to enforce control.

If a state cannot guarantee national security then it has failed in its most important mission: keeping us safe. The government should have access to all the tools it needs in order to prevent terrorism, violent crime, and foreign interference. There should be due process, and sufficient political and judicial oversight, but after reasonable criteria have been met it makes absolutely no sense to deliberately tie the hand of government and diminish its ability to protect us. If we want security, we need to let our intelligence services do what they do best.


Only a fool would trust the government with their information. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We’ve seen the havoc that surveillance states wreaked upon their own citizens in the 20th century, and even today. It creates a society without privacy or freedom of thought. Do we really want to return to an East German model? Have we learned nothing from history?

The danger posed by terrorist groups and criminal gangs is nothing compared to the resources available to a modern state. As our politics grows more populist and rhetoric grows sharper, the danger only increases. Constitutional checks and balances are being eroded. How can judicial oversight be considered sufficient when the independence of the judiciary is being weakened? What happens if the members of oversight committees are fiercely loyal first to the government, and have a grudge against the opposition? Even in a democracy, it would not take much to sleepwalk into a situation where surveillance operations are abused (just look at the Watergate scandal!).


If you actually take a moment to look at the research, you’ll find that surveillance does work. Terrorist attacks are constantly foiled thanks to government surveillance. In 2017, the UK government announced that it has managed to prevent 13 terror attacks over the previous five years, in part thanks to surveillance. France has, likewise, reported similar successes. Countless lives have been saved thanks to these efforts.


How can you stop a person driving a car into a crowd of civilians? Or taking a kitchen knife and stabbing random passersby? If they really want to, terrorists and criminals know how to bypass government surveillance. For example, ISIS has famously used apps to send encrypted messages to one another, outside of government reach. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way. The UN has shown that surveillance is mere gesture politics, rather than results-oriented. A much better approach is addressing the root causes of terrorism, and adopting effective counter-radicalisation strategies.


In a democratic state, the average law-abiding citizen will not be impacted by government surveillance efforts. After all, the government only seeks to use these tools to stop terror attacks and criminal activity. Why worry if you have nothing to hide? Despite what certain conspiracy theories may claim, in our liberal democracies, the government will not arbitrarily detain you if you haven’t done anything wrong. There are checks and balances in place, and oversight of intelligence and police activities does exist. This is exactly why we have oversight committees in place!


Surveillance creates a disturbing culture, wherein those being observed may feel the need to alter their behaviour regardless of whether or not they have done something wrong. There is a “chilling effect” on society, where people internalise the fact they are constantly being observed and judged by some hidden criteria. Do you ever feel anxious when shopping in a store with CCTV, especially when the security guards seem to be paying too much attention to you? Imagine that on a much bigger scale: a totalitarian nightmare à la Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStockPhoto – Pixinoo