The Dangers of Surveillance in the Age of Populism

CCTV
A CCTV sign hangs on a fence, Northern England, October 6, 2016. What does the rise of populism mean for state surveillance? Phil Noble/REUTERS

Surveillance laws should always be written as if the government we most fear is in power. It is one of the most insidious controls authorities can wield and, if unchecked, can corrode democratic institutions and give governments a sinister degree of power over their citizens.

Yet the exact opposite has happened in Europe since Edward Snowden revealed mass surveillance abuses by the United States. Despite the outrage he sparked, governments across Europe have steadily adopted the US “collect it all” approach. With growing support for populist extremist parties, now is not the time to abandon privacy protections. Doing so risks enabling abusive surveillance by future illiberal governments.

President Donald Trump's rise has emboldened European far-right and nationalist parties who have achieved electoral gains in recent years and seek to increase them in several upcoming elections. Imagine if a demagogue comes to power in upcoming elections in a European country with far-reaching surveillance powers, riding a wave of populist appeals to nativism, xenophobia, and economic dislocation.

What would stop this leader from using surveillance to target political opponents, journalists, and critics? Or from mining massive databases of personal information to deny basic rights based on race, ethnicity, or religion? What would stop a demagogue from turning surveillance’s all-seeing eye on the electorate to remain in power?

In the U.S., the National Security Agency continues its information dragnet on millions of people every day, despite modest reforms in 2015. Now the keys to the world’s most sophisticated surveillance apparatus have been handed over to President Donald Trump, who as a candidate threatened to imprison his political opponent, register and ban Muslims, deport millions of immigrants, and menaced the free press.

Since taking office, he has refused to divest from his businesses, though surveillance powers at his disposal might be deployed against competitors as well as terrorists. He has followed through with his campaign promise of “extreme vetting” for immigrants coming from predominantly Muslim countries, raising fears that surveillance could be used for racial and religious discrimination. Existing safeguards against abuse of surveillance are entirely insufficient.

Europe is already struggling to respond to governments in Hungary and Poland that have eroded checks and balances and undermined the rule of law. If populist extremists came to power in Western Europe, people could find their privacy and wider human rights under similarly grave threat.

The U.K. passed the Investigatory Powers Act in December, which Snowden described as legalizing “the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy.” It allows mass surveillance and hacking and requires internet companies to store a record of every website their users visit. Almost 50 government departments can access such browsing histories without judicial oversight.

In the past three years, France has also passed laws that enable sweeping surveillance with minimal safeguards. Authorities can collect data in real time and will force service providers to install “black boxes” on their networks to indiscriminately search for “suspicious” patterns. The government is also about to create an unprecedented national database of identity information on 60 million people in France, which leads to serious concerns about the potential use for biometric identification purposes.

In September, Switzerland approved expanded snooping powers by a wide margin. Although the new law requires judicial oversight, it will allow intelligence agencies to scan internet backbone traffic for keywords and hack into computers abroad. Germany also lifted limits on intelligence agencies’ ability to massively eavesdrop on people outside the country. Although the German and Swiss laws target foreigners, both programs will unavoidably scoop up citizens’ communications. Finally, Austria and Poland have also expanded their security agencies’ powers, and the Netherlands is considering dragnet snooping legislation.

Digital surveillance can expose our innermost thoughts and desires—our late-night web searches, the identities of our associates, the secrets we share over chat, our religious and political beliefs, our sexual orientation, the history of our cell phones’ movements. Armed with this information, governments can alter our behaviour and undermine dissent. For example, this can take overt form in blackmail or, as recent headlines remind us, “kompromat” efforts. Police can monitor journalists and civil society groups and retaliate against sources and activists, silencing critics through intimidation and damaging the free press. But pervasive surveillance can also lead to subtler harm, from the chilling effect of knowing every web search may be recorded, to discriminatory profiling based on mass data collection.

Those who lived under the constant watch of the Stasi or KGB understand these risks. Yet if European governments don’t reverse course, citizens could find themselves one election away from a populist demagogue able to monitor their every move.

The need for unchecked surveillance to counter terrorism can appear compelling, while the harm seems hypothetical. But history shows the speed with which the harm can become all too real. That is why we must constrain surveillance powers today.

Cynthia Wong is the senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch.