The problem of surveillance in a democratic society


English: POLICAM surveillance camera and enclo...

English: POLICAM surveillance camera and enclosure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What has been a constant theme through the debate is that there is a technological solution (encryption) to what is perceived as a technological problem (surveillance). The problem, at its source, is not technological it is political. Why we have surveillance is a political question. How surveillance works and how best to avoid surveillance are technological questions. The debate has focused heavily on the technological issues. I would suggest that it has been dominated by a technological view of the issue, which has led to the confusion and the concern. The great shibboleth that has been created is the belief that the state is omniscient and all seeing. Yet, the truth is the opposite. The state is nearly blind and its competency is only manifested when it reacts to a problem, which is fixed and determined, such as a disaster or an attack. When focused it can act with amazing speed, effectiveness and efficiency, yet without that focus it is nearly blind and indolent as it is busy with daily work of the government. The government has no interest in the individual citizen unless it has been given a reason to be interested. This is why governments spend most of their time and resources on specific problem areas or the everyday work to maintain the rules that allow political society to flourish.  As long as the system functions, the government remains passive and pre-occupied in its maintenance role.

Is everything a government does control and surveillance?

What the debate seems to avoid is the political reason for surveillance. At one level, it appears that any activity by a government is surveillance and control. Yet, any surveillance that is directed at a particular person or group of persons is done with intent.  The surveillance follows some pre-determined criteria.  The criteria are political and set, either directly or indirectly, by the government. The government gives the reason for surveillance. In turn, we need to consider what is the government’s role or purpose. Surveillance serves the government. We then can consider the difference between a legitimate and an illegitimate government use of surveillance. Yet, that also requires us to understand the relationship of the citizen to a government in a representational democracy. These questions help us to see that surveillance is a political question that is being posed as technological question.

Technology to avoid democratic political accountability?

If we use technology to deal with surveillance, we stay within a technological and not a political framework. As a result, we cannot solve the political problem that surveillance poses. What is the best way for the state to keep us safe?  Technology does not change human nature. We may believe that technology allows us to ignore nature, and human nature in particular, but that only confuses a second order issue (what is the role of technology) with a primary order question (what is the best way to live). In other words, technology only assumes that the political decisions are either already settled or can be avoided. In either case, when we rely on technology to solve a political problem, we avoid democratic debate and decisions.

Why do we need governments?

In the United States, one can view the debate about surveillance and encryption as similar the discussion over the second Amendment right to bear arms. When the government is not around, Americans want guns to vindicate their right to self-preservation. Yet, when someone else has more guns they than do, they also want the government to have enough guns to protect them and those who do not have guns. Americans want a rule by the majority that protects the rights of minority because on any given issue a member of the majority may find themselves in the minority. However, the issue though is not guns or surveillance.

Why do we need surveillance?

. We need them to promote and protect our rights, which are the basis of our freedom because human nature is flawed. A government promises its citizens that it will protect them. Surveillance is part of that promise to protect. If the surveillance does not serve that end, it becomes illegitimate. Human nature’s flaws mean that there are bad people in the world who want to do bad things. At the point where their freedoms can hurt us, we need guns or governments to help us protect our rights, which are the basis for our freedom. Those people who will not be persuaded to respect our rights, or the common good, have to be coerced to respect them. There is no other alternative.

Without surveillance, can we trust a government to keep us safe?

If governments cannot use surveillance, how will they keep their promise to protect their citizens? Is it is wrong for a democratically elected government with a democratic mandate to protect its citizens through surveillance? The public want non-democratic organisations, like Facebook, to use surveillance to monitor the content of their platforms. If we claim that organisations have a contract with the client, what about the citizen’s constitutional contract with their government? A citizen consents to that contract when they decide to live within their country unless they are not free to emigrate.[1] What we find is that the argument is that we cannot trust our government. In the United States, this is problematic because as Lincoln reminded us, America’s government is of the people, by the people and for the people. Often the arguments develop into a plea for direct democracy to avoid democratic due process as exercised through representational politics. The argument appears to be that if we just get rid of the powerful and the politicians we can get better and more democratic decisions because technology allows us to all follow our self-interest and find the ideal decision on any issue. Yet, that proposed solution only reminds us why we have a representational democracy.

Why do we elect governments?

We have a representational democracy for these cases because they want someone to represent their interests. They may not have the time or the skill to do it themselves, so we elect someone to represent our interests. The internet gives us the illusion that we can be authentic individuals and manage this representational task by ourselves. We will represent ourselves on all matters large and small. Yet, the representational government emerged to avoid those situations where a person wanted to be a judge in their own case. What seems to be common this issue is an almost utopian belief that the web will allow us to be judges in our own cases.  We will decide what laws we will obey. We want to be able to opt out as and when we like rather than understand that, we have consented to a representational government to express our ability at self-government. We can agree to a contract and fulfil it. If we cannot do as we agreed to do, then how can, we say we can govern ourselves.

The choice for surveillance is political it is democratic not technological.

Our political regimes have chosen to use surveillance. The choice was a political one, not a technological one. The men and women we elected act on the belief that technological surveillance serves the common good. If surveillance does not serve this end, it becomes untenable. However, the state’s political legitimacy is not a function of technology. Technology does not

decide whether the laws are executive faithfully. The political regime decides if the laws are to be executed, which political questions not technological questions are. If we want to “stop” NSA surveillance, we will need to convince the government and the public that elected them that it needs to stop. To do otherwise is to avoid the political decision in favour of technology. In that sense, encryption only avoids that political debate and in effect abandons democracy. Either we can make our political system robust or we can withdraw from it and pursue an anti-democratic technological privacy. The democratic choice is ours.


[1] If you are not free to emigrate, the government does not allow its citizens to leave, then surveillance will be the least of their worries because the relationship with the government is already problematic.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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4 Responses to The problem of surveillance in a democratic society

  1. philjackman says:

    A number of things concern me about the surveillance culture:
    – We use technology to carry out surveillance because we can rather than becuase it is needed
    – We use it to replace natural human vigilence, a camera never lies (other than all the time)
    – And the phrase ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about’. If I have notig to worry about why the surveillance?

    There is so much of it about now that we just take it for granted.

    • Phil,
      Thanks for the positive comments. All technology is used because we can. In that sense, all technology serves a need. Technology, though, is not the issue. I am not sure it replaces humans or just makes them remote, it mediates our understanding of events. “It must be real I saw it on TV”. However, that does not change our person. If anything, it should force us to seek out the real rather than the mediate or simulated. Alas, having experienced the heightened reality of technology, we are likely to be disappointed by the reality. Why else is there such a demand for pornography for example?
      The phrase is true so long as it is the government that is looking. The government is not interested in reading habits if they do not pose a threat to the state. The police officer walking the beat does not care if you are obeying the law, you are not a threat or an issue to address, but if you are not obeying the law, then they will take an interest.
      The challenge of technology is never really the state but your fellow citizens. The state only acts as a proxy for them or a vehicle to either enhance or restrain their passions. If your neighbour is interested in reading your post, then in time the state may become that interested. If your neighbor is interested in law abidingness, then the state will be interested. It is not a coincidence that East Germany had a very high number of CCTV and informants and West Germany had very little of either. The anonomly though is now the UK, but they are not a republic and that explains much, but not all of it.

      Finally, the threat is not the state because they are accountable either directly, the laws, or indirectly, the resources. If they are spying on citizens who are law abiding and missing the criminals or terrorists, then the resoureces will be questions as well as their intent. By contrast, the hackers, the blackmailers, the extortionists and the fraudsters do not care. They mean that you have something to hide, ie what is valuable to you as a person rather than a citizen. If you had nothing valuable, they would not be interested. I doubt the Amish get hit by many email scams.

      We take a lot of it for granted and that is because we live in a technological age in which we have a technological (rather than natural) view of the world. To that extent, we have lost touch with Aristotle and Plato and our pursuit of technology reflects a disordered view of the human person as if they can be reduced to or understood simply as a technological entity a digital person rather than a human being that possesses natural rights that the state is designed to protect and enlarge.

      Thanks again for stimulating comments and for reading the blog.

  2. philjackman says:

    Ah ha – is there a reality outside of technology? Is the spoken word on a radio real? Is the written word on a kindle less real than on the printed page? There are so many cameras now that our lives will be recorded and replicated, digitised until one day there will be more of us in technology than in reality. Perhaps then humans wil live in a new reality?

  3. Pingback: Who decides the public interest: journalism’s death or resurrection? | Media Meditations

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