Why we should care about government surveillance

July 9, 2013

In releasing information concerning the top-secret US and British government surveillance programs to the press, Edward Snowden initiated–at great personal cost–a much-needed discussion concerning the costs and benefits of, and ultimate justification for, these mass government surveillance programs. Some people, especially those in positions of power in the US and UK, have tried their best to conflate this important public discussion with a spurious debate over whether or not Snowden is a traitor. That Snowden is a hero, not a traitor, barely needs mentioning at this point, but what does need to be pointed out is that the debate over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor is both stupid and dangerous. It is not only a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy (attacking the messenger rather than the message), it is also a dangerous red herring in that it diverts attention away from what should be the focus of public discussions at the present time–the question of whether the benefits of these surveillance programs outweigh their costs. 

Central to this important discussion is the question of what exactly the costs and benefits of these programs are. The only point that has been offered in support of these programs is that they provide governments (specifically the US and UK governments) with information that may be useful in preventing terrorist attacks against their populations. It is highly doubtful that this is true, and even more doubtful that the British and American governments are seriously concerned about reducing the threat of terrorist attacks. If they were serious about that, there are far more effective, simpler, and cheaper ways of bringing about that end.

So the benefits of these surveillance programs are dubious at best. But what about the costs? What exactly is the problem with these programs?  Recent discussions in the wake of the Snowden release have brought to light three different sorts of concerns above and beyond the issue of actual financial costs, which British and American tax-payers are paying for. First, there is the issue of individual freedom–freedom of expression and freedom from unnecessary government interference or unwanted government surveillance. There are those who seem to think that as long as they are law-abiding citizens, there really is no concern on this point, but there are good reasons for resisting that thought, some of which are mentioned here. Second, there is the threat to democracy, as citizens in the US and UK are being asked to trust their political leaders regarding important issues about which they are being kept in the dark. More on that point here. Third, there is the issue of the sovereignty and even survival of other countries around the world, the countries that are being spied on by the US and UK. On this last point, Julian Assange’s most recent article is well worth reading.

Each of the above three points needs to be examined in much greater detail to arrive at an accurate assessment of the costs and benefits of these surveillance programs, but the foregoing at least shows that government surveillance is not just a threat to individual liberty and online freedom of expression. As if that wasn’t enough, these surveillance programs also raise real concerns about state sovereignty versus global imperialism. Those who wish to protect or preserve individual freedom and democracy in the information age ought to be gravely concerned about Snowden’s recent revelations. 

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