5 reasons why we should care about mass surveillance

By Tanya O’Carroll, adviser in Amnesty International’s Technology and Human Rights program. Follow her on Twitter @TanyaOCarroll

‘Every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit… is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.’
Edward Snowden, CITIZENFOUR

In June 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the shocking extent of government spy networks across the world. The documents he released laid bare how governments are using illegal, mass surveillance to collect, store and analyse millions of people’s private communications around the world.

It is almost two years since Snowden’s first disclosures. CITIZENFOUR, the powerful film directed by Laura Poitras, documents those tense days when the revelations first hit, with Snowden confined to his hotel room as the storm erupts. On Saturday the film was awarded an Oscar for best documentary 2014.

The film lays out the case against mass surveillance in brilliant and terrifying detail and the need to bring government surveillance powers back within the law.

For those who haven’t watched it yet, here are 5 reasons why you should care about what Snowden revealed to the world.

1. Mass surveillance treats us all like criminals
The Snowden files show our governments are hoovering up every private communication we make and every trace of digital data we leave behind.

When they do that, they abandon long-standing principles of law which says that surveillance must be targeted, based on sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, and authorised by a strictly independent authority, such as a judge. Instead, they’re treating us all as criminal suspects, guilty until proven innocent, and every detail of our personal lives as suspicious.

2. Mass surveillance doesn’t help catch terrorists
Our politicians keep saying they need more spying powers so they can catch terrorists. But there isn’t any evidence that mass surveillance will help them.

Before the attacks in Paris, the security services identified the suspects but then ruled them out. No amount of our personal data would have made up for this. The truth is that governments are gathering information that they couldn’t have dreamed of a decade ago. And they will always tell us they need more. There need to be limitations set.

3. Mass surveillance does away with fundamental rights
Right now, our governments are selling us a false choice – safety or freedom.

Societies have had to balance these two things for centuries, and have solid rules to protect people. This means we presume people are innocent until proven guilty. That they have the right to privacy. And that governments need to suspect someone has done something wrong before restricting their freedom.

These are the things that proponents of mass surveillance systems want to do away with.

4. Mass surveillance can be used to control what we do
I’ve spoken to people who say: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide”. But that puts huge trust in our leaders to do the right thing.

The government is granting itself the power to look into every person’s personal life whenever they like. Those are formidable powers and they are ripe for abuse. We already know that this private data can be used to target journalists, persecute activists, profile and disciminate against minorties and crack down on free speech.

We need to start thinking: ‘if not me now, who?’, ‘If not today, what about the future?’

5. Mass surveillance threatens free speech online
When it was founded, the internet was seen as a space where open debate could flourish. Today, that vision is under attack. Governments want us to accept that we don’t have rights when we’re online. That somehow, when I pull out my smartphone or sign in to my email, everything I do or say belongs to them.

We wouldn’t allow this level of intrusion into our offline lives, so let’s not stand for it online.

Get involved: Over the coming months, look out for more from us on this issue and how you can get involved in fighting back against unlawful mass surveillance. For more information on how to gte involved in Canada, contact Hilary Homes at Amnesty’s naional office: hhomes@amnesty.ca.

Get informed: Find a CITIZENFOUR screening near you