Over the last years, available storage capacity and processing power has increased tremendously. An increasing part of our lives is based on the internet. Governments have started to use this technology for surveillance as well as manipulation of citizens.
The justification given for surveillance is security. Some people could do things that are dangerous, so government agencies must find out about their activities in order to suppress those activities. The problem is: what is a dangerous activity, an activity that has to be prevented or suppressed, is a matter of definition. Once the technology is there to find terrorists, for example, the same technology can be used to find any kind of dissenter or any person having characteristics that a government wants to suppress or eradicate, be it racial, political, religious or whatever. So this is not, as we are supposed to think, a security technology; it is a power technology.
The point is not that good people have nothing to hide. The problem is that a government can redefine who good people are and who bad people are. So which information is something you would better hide can change. The technology is neutral about that.
In a democracy, power is supposed to be controlled by a system of checks and balances. With the introduction of such surveillance technologies, the balance of powers is shifted, away from the public. It becomes more likely that democracy will flip into dictatorship if governments are in possession of such tools.
As we have recently learnt, there is also the possibility of manipulation and propaganda. Since more and more of our activities are done online and the internet becomes our main system of access to information, it can also be used to put information in front of our eyes in order to manipulate our opinions. Businesses do this all the time, but if governments in democratic states are starting to do this, the very basis of democracy is being undermined. What we are ending up with is a “guided democracy” that is democratic only on the surface but actually is a subtle form of dictatorship.
In fact, our opinions are being manipulated already by state propaganda. Governments are spreading an ideology according to which we are under a terrible threat of terrorism. Let me call this ideology “terrorisism”. What we should understand is that the threat of terrorism is minute and does not justify taking away our basic rights. Terrorism does not even show up on the statistics as an important cause of death. It is much more likely you will die from the health effects of lemonade than from terrorism, so the soft drink manufacturers are by far more dangerous than any terrorist organization. If we want to keep our freedom, we will have to live with a certain amount of insecurity. Once the freedom is lost, there will be no security again either.
Democracy can survive this threat only if we stand up against it. In democracies (and in constitutional monarchies as well) the true sovereign is supposed to be the people. You should be opposed to what these governments and agencies are doing not just because your private life is not their business but because what they are doing is undermining your freedom. What governments and the economic lobbies behind them are currently doing is to stealthily take power out of the sovereign’s hands. The word for this is treason.
(The pictures show a mural in Cologne in Ehrenfeld, on the side of Ehrenfeld train station. Click on the images for enlarged versions.).