Week 7: Growth of the surveillance state

Like many of the other issues discussed over the course of TP1, it is important not to overstate the novelty of our current circumstance.  The ability of the state (and non-state actors) to spy on citizens is hardly a historical novelty.  It is difficult to imagine a more troubled legacy whether it is East German use of children to spy on their parents, teachers and friends or the history of the Cultural Revolution. Apart from more traditional modes of surveillance, ranging from human intelligence to CCTV, the internet now offers what some fear will be an even more problematic focus for the surveillance state.  Of course, there is no doubt that there are pervasive or endemic problems not only in North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Russia, but other notable ‘enemies of the internet’, as described by Reporters without Borders, include  the US, and the UK.

Most recently, the UK parliament has recently passed the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is now just waiting Royal Assent.  As noted by Forbes and others, this is the first or leading example of a government in the ‘west’ bulk surveillance  to an extent that rivals that of Russia and China. In spite of the fact that many of the largest global tech companies strongly opposed the bill.  There are, of course many problems to consider when deciding how to respond as an individual or when thinking in broader societal terms.  If, for example, you wanted to further enhance your security or greatly enhance your privacy, there are many different tools available, but any such choice requires tradeoffs.

  1. How worried should we be about the rise of the surveillance state?
  2. What aspects do you find particularly problematic?
  3. How do these tradeoffs play out in your country or sector and how do you see these tradeoffs shifting over time?
  4. How do we resolve the tensions between security, privacy at both the social and individual level?
  5. Consider in particular the use of language and arguments on both sides.  If you support greater privacy how do you convince others? Which do you find the most convincing arguments? By contrast, if you are more relaxed or supportive of surveillance efforts how would you convince privacy advocates that some of their claims are overblown?  For purposes of this exercise, I would even encourage you to try to argue against your preferred outcome to learn to be more sympathetic to (and appreciative of) arguments on the ‘other’ side.