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Surveillance: who's watching what, and why?


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Surveillance: who's watching what, and why?

The French parliament passed a new broad law on surveillance – the bill immediately reignited a debate on the necessity of surveillance in the light of increased risk of terror attacks.

How much surveillance is too much? Why do governments need to watch over citizens? Is it acceptable to monitor the nationals of other states? What is a real risk to national security?

These concerns are valid not just for France but for most Western democracies facing the need to balance civil liberties and security. Euronews’ Kateryna Khinkulova looked for answers to some of the key questions.

What is ‘surveillance’?

Surveillance could be defined as observing people, any changes in their behaviour, their movements and interactions or exchange of information with others.

Surveillance can be low- or high-technology, conducted either by human agents and by electronic equipment. Governments use surveillance to stop, prevent or investigate crime.

In recent years surveillance became especially relevant with the rise of international terrorism and networks such as Al Qaeda who use digital communications to try to recruit, train and activate terror cells.

What material can be connected an how it can be used are sensitive issues that vary from country to country – when for example can the leaders of a protest group be deemed a sufficient threat to justify spying on them?

Surveillance is widely used in international espionage.

Why has surveillance become an issue in recent years and months?

Spies have been around since the earliest days of social interaction.

Whether trying to spy on foreign governments or domestic groups deemed to be a threat. During the Cold War the former became a huge focus with both sides seeking an advantage on the other. During the 1990s, however, many agencies saw their budgets cut and it was not until the terror attacks on New York in September 2001 that western governments began to reprioritise and redirect intelligence gathering. Further attacks in London in 2005 and Paris this year saw both the UK and France introduce laws granting greater freedom to secret agencies.

Who is spying on whom?

Surveillance used for prevention of crime in theory should only be applied to those posing a real threat to public safety or those suspected of posing such a threat.

One expects that relevant authorities conduct surveillance only of people and groups suspected of having links to terror networks or plotting to undermine security. In reality it’s much less clearly defined and it is not unthinkable of governments to conduct surveillance of friends, as well as potential enemies.

Confidential information leaked in 2013 by a former worker at the US National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, revealed that the agency carried out surveillance (phone tapping, emails interception etc) on European officials, including the German chancellor Angela Merkel. This allegation was vehemently denied by the White House and later a German agency, investigating the claim, questioned the authenticity of the document, presented by Snowden.

The incident, however, was discussed in European parliaments and at state summits and left a sense of unease.

Is there a rift between USA and Europe when it comes to surveillance?

Snowden’s leaks which allegedly indicated wide scale of surveillance conducted by the NSA, posed questions among European politicians and in many cases caused outrage. France demanded explanations from the US on the vast amounts of French phone and internet traffic intercepted by the Americans. The White House admitted the questions were “legitimate for our friends “. Later a joint statement was issued by the two countries’ presidents, recognising the negative diplomatic impact of the disclosures.

The UK is believed to have much closer links to the US when it comes to cooperation in counter-terrorism surveillance. A report from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe published in January claimed that the US and UK were using “far-reaching, technologically advanced systems” to collect, store and analyse data of private citizens.

US-UK operations, said the report, encompass “numerous persons against whom there is no ground for suspicion of any wrongdoing”.

Why are human rights groups unhappy?

Adopting laws aimed at stopping the spread of terrorism and preventing new attacks could be seen as a positive development. Many human rights groups, however, claim that surveillance infringes on basic freedoms.

In France civil liberties groups described the new surveillance bill passed on May 5 as a road to “1984”, evoking the British writer George Orwell’s dystopian novel about a dictatorship watching over its citizens. Amnesty International said the new bill will give the state “intrusive powers”, as from now on the French authorities will be able to tap the phone of anyone who they reasonably believe is linked to a “terrorist” inquiry without a judge’s authorisation.

In the UK a similar reaction was brought on by the adoption of emergency phone and data storage laws in 2014. The laws were rushed through parliament after a ruling by an EU court which banned companies from storing information about their clients’ phone and internet usage for longer than 2 years.

UK government claimed information dating back further than 2 years was often required in terror investigation and pushed the new legislation through.

Human rights groups argue that these bills jeopardize the right to privacy and a greater judicial control needs to be applied to the intelligence agencies. Amnesty International said in March it was taking legal action against the US and UK governments challenging the lawfulness of their indiscriminate mass surveillance programmes.

What is the public’s response to greater surveillance?

Amnesty International conducted an opinion poll among 15,000 people in 13 countries across the world (Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United States) and published its findings in March.

According to the report, only 26% of respondents agreed overall that the government should monitor the communications and Internet activity of its own citizens and a similar number (29%) said that foreigners should be monitored. 34% said no group should be monitored.

Amnesty International believes that the results indicate the general public’s opposition to increased surveillance but also a lack of understanding of how far-reaching the implications may be.

For instance, 58% of respondents said they would not change their online behaviour patterns if they knew the government was watching them. The authors of the report claim, however, that long-term surveillance poses psychological risks as it impairs mental health, promotes distrust, encourages social conformity and ultimately, undermines a leader’s authority.

Links:

Amnesty Report in full National Security Agency The NSA Files – leaked by Edward Snowden, published by a UK newspaper The Guardian The National Assembly of France
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