Government surveillance simply means the act of the government monitoring its citizens. This monitoring is of a wider scope than imagined because it entails not only the visual observation of individuals, but also scrutiny of private conversations, actions and whereabouts. Classic examples of the forms of surveillance the government employs against the citizens include installation of surveillance cameras, wiretapping for speech surveillance, tracking via GPS technology, and internet surveillance to monitor individuals actions in the internet (McNealy, 10)
The graceful advancement of technology in the last decade of the 20th century to date has also parallelly advanced forms of surveillance. Ethical questions have always arisen with the perpetual question being the governments justification on its surveillance on the citizens. For starters, it is worth noting that surveillance reached its peak in the cold war era, where major countries like United States and Russia planted spies in their rivals backyards to spy and gain information that could help them pin down the rivals. At that time, surveillance was completely justified across all political and social divides. It was necessary on the grounds of national security. Furthermore, surveillance in that times was largely in the form of physical spying and thus most citizens deemed it not as an infringement of their privacy and rights.
A huge leap into the contemporary times, the question has sparked debates in political and social circles alike. The bone of contention is whether the government is justified in surveilling the citizens, and whether this is an infringement of their fundamental rights of privacy. The government and other pro-government groups usually argue that it is necessary in eliminating criminals. Those citizens who are not guilty of any wrong doing therefore have nothing to fear.
It is argued that since a large chunk of the society is comprised of law abiding citizens, it is prudent that the government be allowed to use surveillance to pluck out the bad elements in our midst. Use of cameras, wiretapping in the communications channels and even internet surveillance has the potential of saving more lives from the actions of criminals.
However, these arguments are countered on the grounds that, the government has the capacity of employing more digital monitoring techniques rather than the analogous methods being employed. This will ensure that not everyone is exposed to surveillance by the government but only the criminal elements.
With the advancement of technology, the government can afford digital monitoring that can trace down a target with ease. This will be more efficient and also protect the citizens from unnecessary surveillance. Our major concern with allowing the government absolute rights to surveil the citizens, is that the system is always prone to abuse by the insiders. A textbook case is of Benjamin Robinson, the then special agent in the department of commerce in 2007. He was indicted for using Tracking Enforcement Communication Systems (TECS), to track the movements of his girlfriend and her family (Lyon, 23).
This clearly shows that even though the system was created in good faith, its still prone to infallibility as a result of the human nature of the persons mandated to handle it. Surveillance is a very critical issue, and even though in some contingency scenarios, the government may be justified in seeking to surveil the privacy of its citizens, this is can lead to a Pandora box where in the future more of those cases will be rampant in completely unnecessary scenarios. Recently, a dispute between mobile phone giants, Apple Inc. and the FBI, was at the center of the owner of an IPhone. The man had been suspected of criminal activities and the government sought the help of Apple to unlock the phone, which they said contained evidence that could help incriminate the suspect. However, Apple objected to this request and this later led to court battles (Law enforcement operations, 7).
In 2007, George Bush, the then president of the United States signed into law the Protect America Act. The same year, a program called PRISM, was launched by the NSA. PRISM was a surveillance program that was designed to collect information from various major internet companies in the United States. These included GOOGLE, yahoo, Facebook among others. It was a secret program that was neither scrutinized by any of the nations watchdogs nor made public for the citizens unanimity. Through PRISM, the government could collect information in the form of emails, text chats, skype calls and even voice messages. This was not only done to the citizens but also to foreign leaders and politicians.
In 2013, the program was exposed to the public by one time contractor of the NSA, Edward Snowden (Ritter, 2). Through his leaks, Snowden exposed the pervasive nature of the program and how the government was abusing the rights of its citizens by surveillance that was secretive. The government was also guilty of spying on foreign governments. This is particularly critical since such issues can lead to diplomatic spurs with allies. It also unethical that the government extends its surveillance program beyond its borders.
Such kinds of mass surveillance, even if not secretive are not good for the country. The governments big brother approach could lead to a populace that is always paranoid of its activities because of the fear of someone watching. The government could thus turn into an authoritarian government, discouraging the emergence of free thinking citizens. It also leads to culture of sycophancy for government elements where citizens shy away from criticizing bad governance on fear of victimization from state agencies.
Surveillance equipment are also very expensive. The citizens see this as a waste of the usually limited resources. This equipment is usually difficult to appraise on their efficacy. The government could instead use the resources channeled on this equipment on more economic activities meant at improving the livelihood of its citizens.
The United States is regarded as one of the strongest democracies globally. However, uncontrolled surveillance by the government threatens democracy within our borders. Classic examples around the world have shown that surveillance and democracy cannot mutually co-exist. In totalitarian societies, surveillance has always been used to silent dissents. Democracy on the other hand survives fundamentally on the notion that all citizens are able to keep the government in check. With uncontrolled surveillance, most people will fear that the government, hell bent on silencing its critics might use its surveillance capacity to crush them.
Democracy is also founded on the principles of equity and the dignity of all the citizens. However, with surveillance, the uncontrolled infringement of the privacy of the citizens robs them off their dignity.
Overall, the big question of whether the government is justified in spying on its citizens will still be therefore in the foreseeable future. The government is not about to relent on its surveillance. Therefore, the society should subject the government surveillance programs to tests that tries to create a middle ground on the necessity to surveil and citizens rights. These evaluations should be based on the following fundamental issues.
The first issue is safety. The surveillance program should not cause any harm, physical or psychological to the citizens. All surveillance programs should be duly subjected to scrutiny and if found potentially able to cause harm to innocent citizens, be disposed. The surveillance program should also be valid in the sense that they are capable of producing the desired results. Awareness is the other fundamental issue for surveillance. Those under scrutiny should be aware of the spying activity. The country being a democracy, consensus is important. The citizens of the country should agree on the programs and thus the government should try to argue their case on the importance of a program to the citizens until it is acceptable. The program should also be beneficial. A swat analysis of the program should be carried out in order to ascertain that in the long run the program is not just a white elephant. Finally, if there are viable alternatives that could be employed to achieve the desired results without necessarily using surveillance, it should be considered first.
Works Cited.Drehle, D. The Surveillance Society. Time. ISSN 0040-781X.
Law Enforcement Operations, Persistent Surveillance Systems.
Lyon, D. (2007). Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Cambridge: Polity
McNealy, Scott. Privacy is (Virtually) Dead
Ritter, K. (September 24, 2014). "Snowden Honored With 'Alternative Nobel'".
ABC News. Associated Press. Archived from the original on September 24, 2014.
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