There is a certain ongoing debate, one unique to the era we currently live in: the dialogue of whether privacy should be the right of all men and women, or should it be considered as an item of low priority when put in the context of national security. I cannot say that I belong to any particular camp in this discourse, as I feel that I a more akin to a somewhat neutral observer who occasionally throws out his opinions. Thus I write this article from such a position, attempting to offer an evaluation of the worths of the arguments proposed by the supporters of privacy and the proponents of transparency.
Of course, we could never avoid bringing up the name of infamous Edward Snowden in discussions involving privacy. The whistleblower and ex-NSA contractor revealed a stunning secret: that the government of the United States of America has been monitoring all sorts of communications channels for years, both domestically and internationally—with targets that range from ordinary citizens, suspected and convicted criminals, politicians, and the list has virtually has no end. Hence, Snowden showed us all that the contents of each and every emails, texts, phone calls, et cetera we have sent and made are highly likely stored within the databanks of the US government. Which, needless to say, are free to peer into by certain US officials whenever they so desire. A revelation of this magnitude of course shocked a great many people.
All across the globe, everyday civilians, government officials, politicians, activists, reacted sporadically. Some accepted that a breach of privacy is desirable if it means an increase in a government’s capacity to safeguard its people. Others yelled in protest as they realized that nearly all of their most private documents, pictures, videos, and much more have actually been visible for an extensive period of time, to people that they would never have granted access to. Hence what might just be one of the greatest debates of the century begun, and humans of all ilk began to choose sides.
It is undeniably easy to swallow the arguments of privacy advocates. Who, after all, wishes to have their most intimate secrets accessible to unknown, prying eyes? All of a sudden, there is always an invisible head over our shoulders whenever we boot up our computers, open up our phones, basically touch any electric communication apparatus. The “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s fiction has now started to breach into the realm of reality, and he is not a figure anyone would long to have in their lives (please read Orwell’s 1984, it might be more relevant than ever now).
Then comes those who disagree with the staunch defenders of privacy. These individuals who feel that if privacy is a price for safety, then it is one very much worth paring. We live in a world of global terrorism, where shootings and bombings can happen at any time and any place (although this is a grandly exaggerated picture painted by the media). If having our digitized items be visible to people who want nothing more than to protect us, in order for them to be able to do their jobs effectively, then what is the problem? The plethora of opposing answers to this question I will have to leave to privacy advocates.
Again I have to say that I am still unable to choose between the two camps of this privacy feud. Not due to apathy, rather due to the many unanswered questions regarding the issue itself. Primarily, the efficacy of mass surveillance systems.
Transparency advocates—the most vocal ones, that is—commonly originate from the sectors of government. More specifically, the branches that deal with national security. Why these departments generate these individuals is most likely because of its primary objective: to protect and ensure the fulfillment of the national interest, which more often than not involve the well-being of the civilian population. The most relevant threat to the lives of innocent citizens, in their eyes, are attacks orchestrated by terrorist groups the likes of ISIS (a fear that is located mainly in first-world, Western countries).
As many of us are aware of, terrorist organizations prefer to operate in the shadows. Being nearly invisible means they could carry out their crimes whenever and wherever they so choose. A few of them are probably competent enough to never have been caught red handed. Thus, how should state security bodies unearth those whose survival rely heavily on unpredictability and invisibility? And by extension, prevent them from committing any further atrocities? By casting a net as large as can feasibly be constructed. In other words, mass surveillance systems.
The government’s goal with the aforementioned net is of course to apprehend terrorist operatives and sympathizers, before the latter parties could fulfill their likely nefarious objectives. A noble purpose, to say the least, but with many notable flaws. Firstly is the previously mentioned impasse with privacy advocates—implying that in the pursuit of safeguarding lives, they have reached a gray moral area. Second, there exists next to no evidence that the established surveillance programs have succeeded in their protective mission, at least in the public’s eye. And I speculate that the second overcoming the second obstacle is key to persuading the members of the public to fall in with transparency proponents.
I find it quite difficult to believe that all contemporary surveillance systems have extremely low rates of success. Recall Alan Turing’s success in breaking Nazi Germany’s enigma code during World War II. His triumph in solving one of the most convoluted codes of his generation provided a channel for Allied forces to continuously monitor Germany’s movements. Yet the cracking of code came with certain costs, ones that may be considered immoral even if they were truly necessary.
To prevent the Axis powers from realizing that their code had been deciphered, sacrifices had to be made. Ambushes, destruction along ship routes, bombings of both civilian populations and military personnel, et cetera were permitted to continue to some extent, all so that Enigma’s structure would not be altered; for if it was, the Allies would have to start from scratch, an impossible demand considering the levels of destruction already done during the course of the global conflict. This particular episode of modern history holds a quite substantial like to the present’s debate on privacy.
The Allies allowed preventable assaults to persist, hid Enigma’s decipherment from the public’s eye, all to secure that their advantage would not be lost. Now maybe, just maybe, that is what’s happening today. Perhaps governments with mass surveillance capabilities cloak the successes brought about y their methods, ensure that their opposition’s methods would remain static.
I have to say that I do respect the right for privacy. Certainly, I do not find the idea of someone snooping through the documents I have on my computer at all appealing. However, if there actually have been catastrophes successfully averted by such breaches of privacy, then by all means read, listen, watch all the files I have. After all, what’s a few secrets laid bare compared to the lives of my fellow human beings? Complete transparency is acceptable to myself personally, if and only if it genuinely does allow a great many of us to be protected from harm.
But the quest for transparency will forever remain stagnant if it continues to be unable to leap over its hurdles. The government must provide legitimacy for their surveillance programs, via a showcase of their accomplishments. Even if it does come with the cost of having to revamp their current methods from the ground up. The alternative would be continual distrust, dislike, and disapproval from the citizen to the governing body. A rift which may grow into an uncrossable chasm—and as history has repeatedly shown us, a discontent population is never a good thing for those who rule.
As such the debate of privacy versus transparency is really quite simple. For a government to persuade its people into accepting whatever it is they might loathe, the public must be shown why they must contend with such vexations. Therefore, as a citizen I will wait for these concrete reasons—if there are indeed any—until I pick a side.
For now, it seems hat the privacy advocates are deserving of a cigar. Since the government has as of yet been unable to provide reasonable explanations for their actions, they will continue to lose public support for surveillance programs and may be forced into coercing acceptance from the people. Thus, mass surveillance currently looks to be a massive waste of time, money, as well as being an unquestionable violation of fundamental human rights.
Should the privacy debate stay its present course, then one day perhaps mass surveillance systems will have to be scrapped (save for those in autocratic and dictatorial states). Yet if the breach of privacy approach is in actuality an invaluable tool for the intelligence and security community, then withholding the successes birthed by it, thereby undermining its legitimacy, the government would be making a grave mistake.
I am not asking for state officials to pour out the immeasurable amounts of date they have gathered. But a glimpse into their, for the present, hypothetical achievements could draw in much needed support for their surveillance programs. Until that day comes, then the state must simply lie down and endure the endless criticisms and doubts coming from its own people.