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Surveillance is a threat to societal progress

Law-abiding citizens do not have to fear anything from the surveillance mechanisms operated by states. Prism, Tempora and the many yet unknown spy programmes in operation are here to enhance our security.

An argument we have heard many times, too many times over the last few years, and even more since the recent revelations by Edward Snowden.
Two fallacies of this argument are regularly come up in debate:
– Defining security as an ‘end in itself’ under which all other considerations, such as individual privacy, have to be subordinated,
– Assuming that personal data is ‘safe’ in the hand of government-run surveillance mechanisms (in itself proven wrong by the ability of a 29 year old employee of a sub-contractor to leak information).

They make an important and powerful point. However, there is a third fallacy in the argument not routinely mentioned: Total surveillance is a threat to law-abiding citizens because it entails the end of societal progress.
Many developments we now regard as progress have their roots in illegality. Take homosexuality as an example. It is very difficult to imagine how its legalization could have come about in a society with encompassing surveillance mechanisms. The illegality of homosexuality (or homosexual acts) would have become an unmovable fact, because any personal rebellion against the legal status quo that would have the potential to gradually change the view of society on the matter, would have been impossible (because immediately detected and prohibited).

We do not necessarily know today what the next comparable issue will be. Something we regard as right today, might be deemed (morally) wrong by future generations. Often such changes in preferences and values held by society have their roots in acts deemed illegal at a certain time. Thus possibilities of nonconformity with the law are, as bizarre as it might sound, essential for societal progress. They have been in the past (think slavery, gender equality…), and will likely be in the future.
This is how surveillance is a threat to each and every one of us.



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