Politics of Digital Surveillance, National Security and Privacy

Executive Summary:

Digital surveillance is a growing global concern, following the Snowden revelations, subsequent national security leaks and the most recent controversy regarding Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign. This report explores some of the dilemmas and deadlocks regarding digital surveillance, its extent in democracies and autocracies and how it interacts with the ‘surveillance-industrial complex’, SIC. SIC is an often-overlooked aspect in the surveillance-privacy debate as it is not necessarily intentions that render surveillance problematic, but its business model. In all political systems there is a secrecy, transparency and surveillance cost which drives a country’s willingness to hoard secrets (citizen data, international data transfers) or to disclose some key political information to the public for the sake of legitimacy. A key component of the surveillance-privacy debate in digital space is the technology race, which drives states’ unwillingness to disclose policy information due to the increasing costs of acquiring key intelligence in a networked society. Ever-increasing methods and technologies of surveillance and circumvention alike is one of the central reasons on why efforts to regulate and safeguards surveillance mechanisms fail: they simply cannot keep up with the technologically proficient intelligence agencies, nor the ever-resourceful citizen-driven circumvention tools.

Good examples in some European countries have focused mainly on making surveillance oversight transparent, while establishing hybrid safeguard mechanisms that are established by proficient technical experts, in addition to bureaucrats or MPs. The failure of surveillance transparency moves largely stem from this technological backwardness of safeguard and oversight mechanisms, as a result of which the public devises its own mechanisms to circumvent, mask or monitor how states manage and process digital intelligence and citizen data. However, especially with the growing threat of terrorism, far-right radicalization and extremist groups emerging in western societies, surveillance is viewed not only politically necessary, but also electorally popular. To that end, public opinion is not unitary and it is itself divided between pro-surveillance and pro-privacy groups. Ultimately, democracies have to come up with the surveillance-privacy balance that conforms to the country’s political culture, but also to the universal human rights. The task of oversight in this context is heavy: it has to continuously chase the executive and intelligence community in detecting abuse and excess, while remaining technologically proficient at the same time.

Akin Unver is a Visiting Fellow of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs and Cyber Fellow, Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Research (EDAM) Istanbul.


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