Government Surveillance

It has already been discussed in this course the concerns we all have with overreach in data collection in our lives (for example, the weeks on privacy and algorithms). But so far these discussions have been mainly kept to how internet giants collect our data and use it to craft our online experiences. Moving toward government surveillance, programs like the NSA’s PRISM program collected “live information, photos, video chats and data from social networks (West 2013, point 2),” from individuals regardless of their level of suspicious behavior. For the average person, it may feel like an uncomfortable intrusion, but most people are busy and harmless, and this is not the cross they’re willing to die on. Richards (2013) gives us a detailed explanation, as well as the not-so-slippery slope of consequences this kind of monitoring can bring. The consequence that struck me the most is Richards’s discussion of sorting and discrimination. I believe this already happens. Ensuring people of color in our country are held one step back is certainly nothing new in this country. Government data collection and interference could ensure people of color don’t get access to the same information online (see also: net neutrality [!!!]), or that people of privilege could get entirely separate news when they open their phones (not personalized echo chambers, but actual government media appearing differently to different demographics). The government could also affect who has access to their own technological equipment. We know the government can hack phones to record, is it so far-fetched to think they could also disable our cameras in, for example, a riot, so that one could not capture police footage? Countries have done similar things during uprisings like block YouTube or “The Internet” as a whole so footage could not be shared. What if this was only done to certain demographics?

On an international level, West (2013) discusses the distrust caused by the United States’s surveillance of our allies (points 10, 12). Richards argues that surveillance at its core inherently “affects the power dynamic between the watcher and the watched (p. 1953).” There can never be a friendly situation where one side is monitoring the other and things are still considered equal. Surveillance always means we know more about the watched than they know about us, and that becomes the breeding ground for distrust and paranoia. In Germany especially, surveillance by the government of any kind is highly scrutinized and publicly frowned upon, since in former East Germany, the Stasi operation employed one of the largest citizen-spy organizations ever created by a government. Germans 25 and older (and, I would argue, those younger simply by learning from their parents) remember the wrath of the Stasi and the consequences of real government surveillance to “keep the peace.” I believe the overreach by the U.S., while perhaps not an issue we see a lot of literature on at the moment, will not be soon forgotten and forever affects our relationship with the country.


11 thoughts on “Government Surveillance

  1. From my area of research, public and digital diplomacy, it’s already a public thing that Foreign Ministries are developing their own algorithms to govern the dissemination of information to foreign publics. In this way, governments don’t even need to even collect public information because people’s online behavior, as recorded naturally by other online sources, interact with the algorithms directly. Like we learned about algorithms, when inserted into the system they act in unpredictable ways based on the information already out there and the other kinds of algorithms in operation. In this aspect, government’s don’t even need to worry about the collection of data, the algorithms will search out and identify what the government wants from the public domain. It’s definitely still surveillance, but without the government ever having public data in their possession. If we’re doing it abroad, clearly we’re already doing it domestically. So if, in this sense alone, governments don’t get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar (housing publicly collected data on government servers), where in the legal system would their behavior fall? Businesses do it, the government does it, and it’s not exactly a secret anymore; clearly, they’re staying within the letter of the law. They may be breaking privacy norms, but if they put their weight behind custom algorithms over data collection, under the current legal system they may not be breaking privacy laws. This is probably a rather discombobulated pairing of ideas, but ideally if offers some kind of food for thought.


  2. In your first point, you mention that “[f]or the average person, it may feel like an uncomfortable intrusion, but most people are busy and harmless, and this is not the cross they’re willing to die on.” This is very true, and it’s something I’ve heard from my own family and friends. I’ve probably been guilty of thinking it myself at times. But as we heard in today’s presentation, this is poor logic. Our privacy is a right we have and should expect from our government. By allowing them to eat away at this right, it is eroding, and we won’t miss it until its gone and we actually need it.


  3. You mentioned the U.S government overreach other countries, actually, that’s what we think too. To surveil other countries, the U.S government needs to spend a lot of money and time. Why doesn’t the government save that money and labor to focus on its own people’s welfare?


  4. I totally agree your idea that they will never be there can never be a friendly situation where one side is monitoring the other. I still remember when I was a little girl, my mother watched my diary. Because this inequality status, I could not treat my parents as friends at that time. In the age of globalization, each country should seek corporation to each other to maximize profit, rather than spending money to monitor each other.


  5. Good job tying net neutrality into this conversation, it is a hot topic right now. (Net neutrality might be a good topic for the next time you run this course, Mindy!) I also think it is interesting that you mention the future of “our relationship with our country” at the end of your post. It occurs to me that with enough control of the population through military-style policing of protest, surveillance, long sentencing for whistleblowers, fake news, and the like, at some point the government would not need to care about or cater to the desires of the people at all. Why should those in power care if the people like them or not when they have this sort of power over the population? I like to think that it could never get that bad, but the election of Donald Trump and his first year in office has widened the horizons of my imagination.


  6. Pingback: Government Surveillance: Comments – New Media & Democracy Learning Blog Fall 2017

  7. I’m going to piggyback off of Austin’s comment, referring to your statement, “[f]or the average person, it may feel like an uncomfortable intrusion, but most people are busy and harmless, and this is not the cross they’re willing to die on.”. I too tend to agree that we get complacent and lazy, almost too accepting of what becomes “normal” for an invasion of our privacy. For the time being, it is a right we should be guaranteed, and we should not have to sacrifice it for the sake of convenience.


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  9. Your idea about discrimination interests me a lot. During my presentation, I talked about a example of social credit system in China, which is identified as discrimination because they use data and rank us, give us different service. So this system discriminates, how about SSN. Social secure number system in America is about ranking? Car insurances, loan from bank is about ranking? I think maybe some of them categorize to “feedback”, others should be defined as “discrimination”.


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