The arguments pertaining to invasions of privacy tend to be more abstract. Take this lovingly crafted boilerplate from the Open Rights Group: “Mass surveillance undermines human dignity, which is the value that underpins every other human right.” (Note the photo on ORG’s home page, which features two elderly hippy-like gentlemen who appear to have walked straight out of an episode of The Lone Gunmen.) Then there’s the steady stream of reports and — in the UK at least — news stories in which campaigners and dissenting politicians claim that democracy is being undermined and that (insert the name of your country here) is turning into an “Orwellian” surveillance state.
Missing, however, from all the righteously indignant and supremely principled arguments against surveillance and data collection are examples of individuals who have actually suffered as a result of these policies. Leaving aside the distinct and special case of terror suspects, it is difficult to find examples of ordinary citizens who have experienced even minor inconvenience as a result of official intrusion into their lives. Presumably, if there were such cases then the media and privacy groups would be shouting about them from the rooftops.
The issue of privacy is a bit like the conundrum of the tree falling in the woods: If someone is watching you, but you don’t know you’re being watched, and the person who’s watching you takes no action against you, has your privacy been invaded? Anti-surveillance campaigners would say yes. Personally, I don’t mind if the government reads my emails and follows me with CCTV cameras all day. They’ll soon get bored.
It’s a similar situation with DNA samples. If the government has your DNA, then you don’t really have much to worry about unless you’re thinking of committing a crime. The technology is improving all the time, and the odds of mistakes being made are increasingly remote. The civil liberties argument against DNA retention almost seems to be that a person will lose the “right” to decide whether or not they’d like to commit a crime at some point in the future, because they won’t have a sporting chance of getting away with it. Try telling that to the 245 convicted criminals who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S. alone.
Governments have always liked to know what their citizens are up to, whether for political gain or for reasons of security. Advances in technology have given the authorities new tools with which to pry, and people can disagree on whether this is a sinister trend or contributes to the greater public good. But until opponents start putting forward concrete arguments, instead of theoretical ones, they’ll have to accept that the general public isn’t going to embrace calls for a mass revolt against Big Brother. (You’d think that if the government really had that much power, it might be able to do something to curtail the activities of those who complain that the government has too much power.)
The fact is that we can never be sure exactly what our governments are up to. Should we sleep more soundly in our beds knowing the government is keeping an eye on those who would do us harm, or should we be worried that the innocent will be swept up along with the guilty? Ultimately, it probably comes down to whether or not you trust your leaders.
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