Imagine a dictator with powers to spy on everybody

They keep reminding us that if you are not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry about surveillance by the state. The corporate media, which speaks only for the establishment, keeps repeating these lines – and lies — as well. And yet, it has been proven again and again that it’s actually those who have nothing to hide are the biggest victims of spying by shady agencies. The surveillance state has become so powerful – and intrusive – that the whole idea of individual privacy is at risk. They want to end privacy completely. They want to create a situation, where the state knows everything what a citizen does but the citizens don’t know anything what the state does. In short, a secretive state in which the citizens have no secrets.

This is the end of democracy. This the beginning of a Republic of Fear.

George Orwell saw it coming way back in 1948 in his dystopian novel, 1984. He warned us about the situation where the government would be able to keep an eye on every citizen, watching their every move: what they do, and more importantly, what they think. But even a brilliant Orwell could not imagine to the extent modern democracies would go to track their citizens. “The types of collection in the book – microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us – are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person,” said Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, in his Christmas message on Channel 4 on Wednesday.

The expensive cellphone we so proudly carry in our pockets is an instrument of surveillance. We love to chat with our friends, send texts to our loved ones, tweet our opinions and update out status on Facebook and talk to our confidantes on these phones. Anyone with access to the phone of an unsuspecting citizen – who hasn’t done anything wrong and has nothing to hide – can play havoc with their lives. If there is no privacy, there is no individuality and no rights either. No rights, no citizenship.

When I started working with then The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald on the top-secret NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden a few months ago, I had only a vague idea about the extent of mass surveillance by the NSA. But we looked and analysed document after document, a very scary picture emerged: the NSA was picking 13.5 billion pieces of information from India’s telephone and internet networks in just one month. This number is almost six times the population of India, almost 20 times the number of cellphones in the country and 60 times the number of people with internet connections. The sheer numbers show the level of surveillance mounted on Indian citizens by the US agency. It also proves wrong the claim that those who do nothing wrong have nothing to worry because everyone is being watched.
Ironically, an American had warned about this threat some 30 years ago. In a report, Senator Frank Church had warned about the NSA in prophetic words: “The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter…There would be no place to hide. If a dictator takes over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”
Surveillance and tyranny go hand in hand. The purpose of the Surveillance State is not to collect information, its real objective is control. First it monitors, then it controls. It robs the citizens of their rights to live the way they want to live. It takes away the right of people to say how they want to be governed.

In a democracy, it’s the people – the ordinary men and women who run the engines of economy – who should be able to decide how technology is used by the government and not the other way round.

But one good thing has happened as a result of reports about NSA surveillance. As citizens, activists and some politicians express outrage over spying, the American agency may lose its power to eavesdrop on people across the world at will.

But, sadly, no such debate in happening in India despite the evidence that the surveillance architecture, created to nab big criminals and terror suspects, is being misused for prying on personal lives of private citizens. In a democracy, there is a social contract between the state and citizens: people give up some of their freedoms and powers so that the state can take care of everyone’s freedom. But when the state begins to misuse those powers, which it has been given by the people for the general good, the social contract is breached and democracy subverted.
In countries like India, where the police and intelligence agencies are prone to misuse by their political masters, this threat is even more serious. No politician can be allowed to track or harass a citizen for his personal motives or political ambition. The state doesn’t have the right to know what a citizen eats or drinks or meets with or fall in love with. The state has no right to enter our bedrooms.

But when a politician or a state begins to spy on a citizen, who poses no threat to anyone, it’s the beginning of a tyranny. The NSA stories have shown us the dangers of such surveillance.

Just imagine a dictator with powers to spy on everyone.

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist and writer. He has done a series of stories with Glenn Greenwald on NSA surveillance activities in India