9tnr57zb 1448849870

Western democracy’s new maxim: surveillance and soft despotism

Who’s watching, and who’s watching the watchers?

Western democracy’s new maxim: surveillance and soft despotism

Who’s watching, and who’s watching the watchers?

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


September 21, 2014, was a day of global climate action. To testify to the scale of the protest in cities around the world, people at the Sydney rally were asked to smile for the drones flying above us.

It was the first time I had been asked to smile at a drone. I felt uncomfortable. I was being watched, becoming an object of my own protest – a pixel, not an agent.

What kind of society do our so-called “Western and networked democracies” count as normal if humans are constantly objectified, monitored and profiled?

A vast surveillance toolkit

The array of mass surveillance tools enhanced by digital technologies is incredibly broad. These range from software that filters and blocks online content to tools that help governments spy on their citizens.

Governments can track our every movement using drones and GPS. They can use voice recognition to scan mobile networks, listen in on our calls, read our text messages and emails and even change their contents en route.

All this information is filtered and organised on such a massive scale that it can be used to spy on every person in an entire country. There is ample evidence that technology produced by American, Canadian and European companies is being used by authoritarian governments to facilitate human rights abuses.

  • Narus, a Boeing subsidiary, was revealed to have sold sophisticated surveillance equipment to Egypt. California’s Blue Coat Systems’ monitoring devices have been found in Syria, Iran and Sudan.

  • Trovicor, a German firm, has sold hacking technology to a dozen Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Bahrain, where activists were tortured while being shown transcripts of their text messages and phone calls.

  • Cisco Systems is facing litigation in California and Maryland for allegedly selling surveillance equipment to the Chinese government, which has used it to perpetrate human rights abuses.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying on citizens caused outrage around the world. flickr/Mike Mozart, CC BY

This is not the end of the story. Mass digital surveillance has become the rule beyond authoritarian states. Since US whistleblower Edward Snowden began releasing National Security Agency (NSA) documents in June 2013, revelations about government mass surveillance have caused outrage in Western democracies.

Many digital corporations assist government surveillance. In the US, the NSA has outsourced surveillance tasks to thousands of companies that make money by constantly monitoring citizens. The financial data of Booz Allen Hamilton (the private security firm that employed Snowden) show its profits increased from US$25 million in 2010 to US$219 million in 2013.

And there’s money to be made

Corporate mass surveillance is conducted directly by corporations on their consumers. When you share images and videos on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, you grant them a licence to use your posts any way they see fit for free. You also grant them the right to let others use your pictures.

If you search the web for medical information, Google will log and track your activity. Its more than 60 privacy policies enable it to create individual profiles of each user. These join the dots between all the services they access.

So extensive is corporate mass surveillance that in his new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, Julian Assange declares:

Google’s business model is the spy. It makes more than 80% of its money by collecting information about people, pooling it together, storing it, indexing it, building profiles of people to predict their interests and behaviour, and then selling those profiles principally to advertisers, but also others.

Corporate surveillance can now capitalise on your death. portal gda/flickr

We are getting so used to corporate mass surveillance in our everyday lives that a growing number of platforms even take advantage of our online profiles after we die. The Twitter app LivesOn uses bots powered by algorithms to analyse your online behaviour and learn how you speak so it can create a personal digital afterlife:

When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.

Although companies routinely claim to care about privacy, they are rarely willing to discuss the details of law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ access to their customer databases, or the degree to which they assist or resist such access. This is unsurprising. Few companies can effectively protect their customers’ data from the government.

Any in-depth discussion of the topic would therefore risk alarming consumers, perhaps convincing them to share less with their service providers.

Despotism with a different character

The main justification governments provide for these practices is terrorism. For corporations, it’s simply profit.

But the problem is that once these huge banks of metadata are built, they become potentially available to any party wielding a subpoena – or enough cash. Worse still, they can be hacked and even used for torture.

How can you describe modern states where unrestricted mass surveillance (state and corporate) takes place without limits? Are we still in a democracy? Is it soft despotism? Or, as John Keane might call it, despotism with a Dolce & Gabbana appearance?

According to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.

Alexis de Tocqueville warned that despotism could creep up insidiously on democracies. Théodore Chassériau via Wikimedia Commons

This is precisely what’s happening: we are getting used to mass surveillance. We are even starting to perceive it as a “mild” forgo when we are sold “security” from the government and a free feast of online networking from digital firms.

In the face of this, there is a clear and pressing need for vigilance in ensuring any surveillance practice complies with international human rights law. That includes the right to privacy because bulk surveillance projects often infringe citizens’ rights (even when technically legal).

To protect our civil liberties, the power of all entities with access to citizens’ private information must be constrained in transparent and publicly accountable ways.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay released a paramount report in June 2014 on the right to privacy in the digital age. She condemned mass surveillance, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The report reaffirms that:

No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. Interference authorised by States can only take place on the basis of law, which itself must comply with the provisions, aims and objectives of the Covenant.

Tocqueville warned of how soft despotism works: sovereign power does not tyrannise; it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies and, finally, it reduces each nation to a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Snowden’s revelations show just how far state-based surveillance extends in the West. These also show how much this depends on Big Data practices that implicate digital majors and our everyday social/online media practices.

This year’s Canadian conference CanUX explored Big Data’s potential impacts on the user/citizen experience. flickr/Mike Gifford, CC BY-NC

Now is the time to ask what kind of society we’d like to live in. The only viable solution is to go back to the constitutional traditions of Western democracy and reaffirm the core values of privacy, freedom of information and anonymity over the current trends towards control, repression and profit.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.