The Consequences of Mass-surveillance in the digital age

This post was written by Crim3305student.

The Munk Debate involves both proponents and critics of NSA and CSEC (CBC, 2014). Both sides debate over the use of mass surveillance and data collection of civilians in secret. Proponents of state surveillance claim that national security interests are paramount in response to an external threat. The Proponents of state surveillance include Michael Hayden and Alan Dershowitz. The proponents in the debate contend that state surveillance is a justifiable form of protection against threats of national security. Opponents of state surveillance contend that the infringement of privacy interests without judicial oversight is unjustifiable. Opponents of unregulated state surveillance in the Munk Debate are Alexis Ohanian and Glenn Greenwald.

Proponents of state surveillance argue that the bulk collection of data is essential. The nature of electronic communications warrants its collection and observation on a total scale. E-mail communications between terrorists and criminals are indistinguishable from e-mails of regular citizens. CSEC and the NSA have little choice but to collect and monitor all electronic communications to expose potential threats to state security. The nature of electronic communications allows foreign terrorists to transmit information to potential terrorists inside North America. Proponents of mass surveillance without oversight, claim that foreign threats to national security exist. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of terrorism against North American countries has shifted. The threats of the Cold War are equivalent to current religious extremists and criminal organizations.

Proponents of the Five Eyes Program claim it is unfair to criticize mass-surveillance. Critics of mass-surveillance fail to acknowledge the entire situation stemming from the terrorist attacks of 2001. Criticizing the use of mass surveillance now; neglects that terrorists abroad transmitted electronic communications to terrorists in North America. The terrorists sent messages to each other prior to the World Trade Centre attacks. The NSA global telecommunications grid screens all e-mails from terrorists and criminals. Terrorists that mean to do North America harm do not deserve constitutional protection.

Surveillance that is adequately balanced with privacy rights can help to maintain security and liberty. The use of surveillance must be justified and must outweigh privacy rights. There is a distinction between types of surveillance that must be acknowledged. There are degrees of surveillance that vary depending on the context of the situation.  A balance of restraint and flexibility is needed when utilizing surveillance. Surveillance, when focused on criminal organizations and terrorists is justified to ensure the security of the state. Polarized opponents of surveillance contend that electronic information is utilized by the state for nefarious purposes. The state utilizes electronic surveillance for preventative purposes concerning terrorism. Mass-surveillance is necessary in acquiring information that prevents acts of terrorism.

Privacy interests are currently “at odds” (CBC, 2014) with the surveillance state as it exists. The surveillance state has expanded due to the rapid advancement of technology in the last 50 years. Advocates of privacy rights contend that privacy is a fundamental right that is inherent in North American society. The privacy advocates in The Munk Debate claim that the use of indiscriminate mass surveillance has 3 hindrances. Privacy advocates claim that mass surveillance is inefficient in that it hinders technological progress, it is harmful to the economy, and counterproductive in addressing threats to national security.

Mass-surveillance creates distrust amongst the global community and diverts the “global user base” (CBC, 2014) away from North American technological services. Internet users will use servers outside of North America that maintain a veneer of privacy. Economic security that helps to provide “national security” (CBC, 2014) has been hindered by mass-surveillance. Countries threatened by North American surveillance may insulate themselves from the internet. Technological progress that results from global interconnectedness through the internet has been threatened by The Five Eyes Program.

Michael Hayden describes how countries like Germany and Brazil may detach their interconnectedness from the World Wide Web (CBC, 2014). The use of mass-surveillance undermines national security because it fails to secure technological exploits. Threats to national security can utilize the same weaknesses in technology that the state utilizes to surveil citizens. Technological defects should be fixed to prevent further exploitation and criminal activity. Mass-surveillance destabilizes the security of global interconnectedness by allowing technological flaws to endure. The NSA and CSEC receive massive budgets that could be utilized to prevent further criminal activity on the internet. The use of mass surveillance is counterproductive to security, democracy, and the economy.

Unfortunately, state surveillance has remained secretive in its practices. The NSA is a non-transparent organization with no judicial over sight. The use of mass-surveillance has not been limited to international countries. The Five Eyes Program collects electronic communications of entire populations that have committed no criminal offence. State organizations that gather information in secret operate under the scapegoat of terrorism and national security. North American populations have been the victims of extensive mass-surveillance and data collection. Indiscriminate data collection results in an overabundance of information to sift through. The Five Eyes program is collecting communications from entire populations instead of communications relating to specific threats. Legitimate democratic governments should be incapable of indiscriminately infringing upon constitutional rights of privacy.

I contend that state authorities need judicial oversight to prevent fishing for evidence.  Reasonable and probable grounds are needed to warrant the electronic surveillance of any individual. Oversight is needed to regulate state discretion regarding privacy interests. The scapegoat of terrorism and national security fails to justify the unwarranted mass-surveillance of civilians. Vague and ambiguous ideals that appeal to patriotism are inadequate in justifying indiscriminate state surveillance. Many forms of surveillance exist in North America, and the Snowden leaks exposed surveillance on a macro scale.

Richards describes how secret and total surveillance by the state should be viewed as illegitimate and with an innate potential for abuse (Richards, 2013, pp. 935-936). Glenn Greenwald stated during the Munk debate that the NSA intended to “collect it all, sniff it all, know it all, process it all, and exploit it all” (CBC, 2014). While the NSA’s purpose may not be “Orwellian” (Richards, 2013, p. 953) in nature, mass-surveillance creates a power dynamic. The watchers and those being watched are involved in a hierarchal relationship. The use of mass-surveillance, results in power relationships involving “blackmail, discrimination, and persuasion” (Richards, 2013, p. 953). The state in the past has attempted to black mail dissidents using wire taps. The FBI utilized wire taps in an attempt to discredit “Dr. Martin Luther King” (Richards, 2013, p. 953).

It is critical to distinguish between the types of surveillance and their purposes; “surveillance involves the collection and analysis of information about populations in order to govern their activities … surveillance against terrorism is only one use of monitoring systems” (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006, p. 3). The issue of police databases in Ontario collecting information regarding people never being convicted of crimes is an alternative example to the NSA controversy. Though, the use of indiscriminate data collection by the RCMP proved to be invasive and harmful (Cribb, Rankin, & Bailey). An unintended consequence of data collection involved police records preventing people from opportunities. The RCMP case in Ontario exposed how different levels of government and private interests collect data. Often the collection of data can vary in purpose, while The Five Eyes collects data for counter terrorism purposes; the RCMP collects data for record keeping and reference.

The use of data collection involves “overlapping and entangled assemblage of government and corporate watchers” (Richards, 2013, p. 936). “Surveillance assemblages” (Larsen, 2014) lack hierarchies, that resemble a single dominant entity. Instead, Surveillance in modern times involves multiple parties with different agendas that attempt to understand and influence human behavior. Surveillance assemblages vary in purpose; for example corporate surveillance involving rewards cards in stores observe purchasing patterns. Surveillance assemblages result in multiple parties watching each other for various purposes. According to Haggerty and Ericson, surveillance assemblages can embody hegemonic ideals. Institutions can “integrate, combine, and coordinate various systems and components” (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006, p. 5). Hegemonic ideals are reflected in the connection and accumulation of data from separate organizations by a governing institution. Data collected by separate institutions has little potential for harm; although data combined from multiple institutions gives cause for concern.
The formation of a “data double” (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006, p. 4) from various external sources can potentially infringe upon privacy rights. The RCMP`s collection of data regarding circumstances in police reports had unintended consequences for those mentioned. The RCMP was forming partial aspects of people’s data doubles. The information collected by the RCMP resulted in; “these non-conviction record releases violate my constitutional rights to be heard, to defend myself against these false records” (Cribb, Rankin, & Bailey, p. 5). The RCMP`s data collection resulted in innocent citizens being discriminated against. The example of the RCMP`s “Canadian Police Information Centre database” (Cribb, Rankin, & Bailey, p. 1) exposes how a single organization that collects data on citizens can have harmful consequences.

Works Cited
CBC. (2014, May 8). State Surveillance: The Munk Debate. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from
Cribb, R., Rankin, J., & Bailey, A. (n.d.). 420,000 in police database never convicted: Analysis. The Toronto     Star. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from The Toronto Star:    ed_analysis.html
Haggerty, K. D., & Ericson, R. V. (2006). The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility. Toronto: University     of Toronto Press.
Larsen, M. (2014, November 25). Law, Society, and Privacy in an Era of Mass Surveillance. Crim 3305 Law     and Society . Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Richards, N. M. (2013). The Dangers of Surveillance. Harvard Law Review , 26 (934), 934-965.


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One response to “The Consequences of Mass-surveillance in the digital age

  1. This is an excellent post – informed, detailed, and well-writen.

    I would take issue with one statement you make: “Often the collection of data can vary in purpose, while The Five Eyes collects data for counter terrorism purposes; the RCMP collects data for record keeping and reference.” It is true that the objectives of data collection can differ – indeed, the same data can be collected by different agencies for different purposes. However, the objectives of the Five Eyes partners extend well beyond counter-terrorism. They encompass national security (broadly conceived), economic security (as evidenced by the CSEC surveillance of Brazilian mining interests), and geopolitical strategic influence. One of the points that Greenwald and others have raised about this surveillance network is that its objectives are broad and poorly-defined.