Government Surveillance in Digital Age
Digital Age a.k.a. Information Age is the result of digital revolution between 1950s and 1970s. This age has brought a total new face of Surveillance Activities in the world. From concealed Microphones to Electronic Bugs to Computer Surveillance to GPS Tracking, the present-day witnesses large-scale of communication data collection. One cannot deny the necessity of such surveillance, yet the harm to privacy and potential bulk data breaching raises serious Human Rights concerns. For instance, UK Intelligence and security services report that the use of bulk communications data is ‘essential’ and key in fulfilling obligation to protect human rights. But Data collection today, is subjected to human rights-based litigations, for the same reason it was called essential. Improved intelligence surveillance can undoubtedly facilitate state obligations and security however, when it takes a turn to data breaching both individual rights and functioning of participatory democracy in the state are undermined.
This article shall examine Data Surveillance in the digital age through the eyes of human rights. So, what are the issues with data surveillance and what do they have to do with human rights? In the present-day digital age, we individually mass-produce communications data. This can reveal insights into, inter alia, health, sexual orientations and political orientations of specific individuals or a community. This bulk data can not only be used for own purposes by the respective organisations but can also be sold to governments, or other private parties. In particular, the rights concerning are the right to freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the prohibition of discrimination.
“If you have not done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear and conceal.” This is one of the typical arguments heard from those justifying surveillance, including governments. Considering the present-day technology, the governments and other private organisations who revel in surveillance for goodwill, also have easy access to one’s online activities, eating and purchasing habits, phone, text and mail conversations. Hence, computer and internet surveillances are analogous and unacceptable.
The observed and recorded personal details are just as vulnerable to abuse by insiders as the case that emerged out in September, 2007 when former Department of Commerce agent, Benjamin Robinson was indicted for exceeding authorised access to a government data base (TCES) for tracking his ex-girlfriend and her family. Records showed that he accessed the data base illegally at least 163 times to track the victim before he was finally caught. Federal agents are trusted with data bases for official duties but instances like these increase the weight of opinions against surveillance.
- Government of United Kingdom, Operational Case for Bulk Powers,2016, para 1.
- ECtHR, Szabo and Vissy v Hungary, App no.37138/14, (12.01.2016), para 57; Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. ‘Democratic and Effective Oversight of National Security Services’,19-27
- Israel Law Review 52(1) 2019, pp 31-60, Cambridge Core.
- The ethics (or not) of massive government surveillance, cs.stanford.edu.