Online Surveillance Needs a Democratic Rethink: Privacy Activist



How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?


The author argues that recent revelations highlighting the rapid widening practice of democratic governments using digital technologies to surveil citizens demands a rethink of how to set boundaries around governments using online surveillance.

He says the biggest risk to democracy from the practice is that it threatens the critical role of whisteblowers and dissidents in alerting the public and media to undemocratic behaviour or abuses of accountability.

In particular, such is the extent of covert surveillance by governments that it is possible for authorities to know which journalists have been tipped off by whistleblowers.

'If whistleblowers don’t dare reveal crimes and lies, we lose the last shred of effective control over our government and institutions,' he states.

'That’s why surveillance that enables the state to find out who has talked with a reporter is too much surveillance — too much for democracy to endure.'

The author says proposed limits on government's accumulating online data is not enough to protect democratic freedoms and privacy.

Specific provisions are needed to protect whisteblowers as a part of a complete rethink on surveillance and what he argues is its corrosive impacts on democracy and individual privacy.

New digital technologies must be designed to ensure that privacy is at the core of their operation, including in-built limits on the amount of information about individuals that can be collected by private companies as well as the state.

'We must consider surveillance a kind of social pollution, and limit the surveillance impact of each new digital system just as we limit the environmental impact of physical construction,' he argues.


Thumbnail image: g4ll4is/Flickr

Richard Stallman
Published Date
October 14, 2013