Snowden: Surveillance is about control

By EDRi · January 11, 2017

In December 2016, the 33rd edition of the world’s longest-running annual hacker conference Chaos Communication Congress, organised by EDRi member Chaos Computer Club (CCC), took place. It featured many insightful lectures and workshops on issues related to security, cryptography, privacy and freedom of speech. When it comes to surveillance issues, a live appearance from Edward Snowden stole the show.

The surprise appearance happened during a talk on the political reactions to mass surveillance in Germany. Speakers Anna and Andre Meister pointed out that, although Germany is the only country organising a parliamentary inquiry committee investigating the Snowden revelations, they are missing the input of the number one witness, Edward Snowden himself. That is when Snowden appeared on the screen and addressed the audience in a live video stream.

Snowden’s intervention was especially informative in the sense of current surveillance and security debates, including the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism. EDRi has criticised the Directive extensively and pushed for a human rights agenda together with other organisations in order to prevent abuses of freedom of expression and privacy.

As Snowden pointed out, we’ve repeatedly seen evidence that mass surveillance is actually not effective in stopping terrorism. And yet despite that, we see more and more political support, not only to continue these programmes, but to expand them, and to fund them to even greater levels. As we see in many of EU countries, there is a trend of giving more power to the intelligence agencies, without the reflection of how their activities affect citizens’ rights.

“It [surveillance] was never about terrorism, because it’s not effective in stopping terrorism. It’s not about security at all, it’s not about safety. It’s about power. Surveillance is about control. It’s about being able to see moments of vulnerability, in any life, whether that person is a criminal or they are an ordinary person,” said Snowden.

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As speaker Andre Meister, EDRi observer, put it, democracy is supposed to be the informed consent of the governed. However, if we are not informed, we cannot really consent to what is happening. Snowden revelations and the inquiry committee in Germany have shown that “spy agencies” function in a way that contradicts the principle of democracy, since they are operating in secret and there’s often no control over whether they are breaking laws.

Snowden pointed out the new harsh surveillance legislation in China and Russia passed with the argument of “just keeping up with the Western world”. He expressed his concern about our society no longer being worried about human rights – we are only barely concerned with the rights of our co-citizens. However, Snowden reminded the audience, human rights are universal, and regulated by several international rights agreements and treaties.

The fact is that no country is immune to the trend of increasing mass surveillance. Rights are being violated indiscriminately by intelligence agencies, not only in China and Russia, but in the US, Germany, in the UK, in Canada. And as Snowden put it, secret government is necessarily a bad government. In order not to have bad governments, we have to take action. It might seem that Snowden is preaching to the choir, but his appeal to stand for our privacy and the privacy of others still generates much-needed inspiration.

EDRi: Chaos Communication Congress 2016 (06.01.2017)

3 Years After Snowden: Is Germany fighting State Surveillance?

EDRi: European Union Directive on counterterrorism is seriously flawed (30.11.2016)

EDRi: Terrorism Directive: Document pool

(Contribution by Zarja Protner, EDRi intern)