The Internet, Personal Privacy & Governments Overstepping The Line

Around the start of the twenty-first century, I privately considered that the following decade would be an Age of Decline of sorts, where the optimism that had marked the New Year’s celebrations would prove unfounded. It didn’t take long for my speculation to be demonstrated as correct, as the tragic results of the events of the 11th of September, 2001 proved. These events struck fear into the hearts of many of the denizens of America, and that fear seemed to start what seemed to be the general feeling of the remainder of the decade: An oppressive and depressing feeling of powerlessness that seemed to blanket society.

In the years that followed, the United States plunged itself into two wars whose military objectives were quickly achieved, but soon became long, slogging occupations with substantially less focus. Further terrorist attacks occurred over the world, including the events of the 7th of July, 2005 in London. Ultimately, having (almost) started with the catastrophe of September 11, the decade was capped at the other end with the fiasco of the depression caused by the lack of regulation on bank investments, which gutted the economy of much of the Western world. This did not surprise me; I had been expecting a severe economic decline to occur for about five years by then, but it did take many other people by surprise and left the economies of several countries, including that of Ireland, where I live, in ruin.

Fast-forward to 2013. The economic crisis caused by the banking fiasco of 2008 continues, with a widening gap between the richest people and the majority of us which threatens to create a new Gilded Age. A disproportionate amount of the punishment has been levelled at younger adults, especially those under 30 years old. Those who instigated the crisis have faced substantially less punishment, and in comparison with those of us who were hit hard by the crisis, they appear to have got off effectively scot-free.

What’s more, the feeling of oppression and powerlessness which appeared to prevail during the last decade hasn’t disappeared; if anything, it’s become more potent. It is in the midst of all of this that it transpires that the government of the United States has used electronic surveillance technology to spy on its own populace and that of other Western countries, ostensibly in the continuing War on Terror.

This sort of behaviour reads like something out of a wild conspiracy theory posited by an unhinged libertarian. I do not usually go in for conspiracy theories, believing them to be convoluted and unconvincing, so when an organisation actually does something that would seem better suited to one of those conspiracy theories, I consider it to be a bad show. In performing the surveillance that the United States government have performed on their own populace through the PRISM programme, among other measures, I believe that they have created a distasteful and worrying precedent.

The problem, as I see it, is that the American populace have been running scared for more than a decade from a threat that is not as significant as it has been made out to be. The United States has not had a significant enemy since the demise of the Soviet Union, and in the interim before a new enemy arises, have created an enemy from the spectre of terrorism. Yes, there are groups who possess ideas on destabilising Western society and introducing something in its place that would be abhorrent to most people in the West. Yet, given the logistical arrangements that would be required to perform more than the few attacks that these groups have delivered, I believe that the nations of North America and Europe have given altogether too much credence and attention to the threats posed by terrorism.

The correct response, in my view, would have been to acknowledge the tragedy of the attacks on the 11th of September, 2001, but to show a front of solidarity, of strength against the attackers and show that a few scattered groups could not break the spirit of those born free in a nation like the United States. Instead, the populace seemed to cower, acting like a besieged population and gave its government greater and greater powers to punish those who were merely suspected of having designs against America.

In the midst of this, the members of the British government, who have been demonstrated to be working in concord with the United States with this spying on the public, have repeated that old lie about, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. That’s a rather reductionist view of things. I have many things to fear, even from my own government. I don’t trust the government of Ireland to pave roads properly, or provide proper healthcare; how then am I meant to trust them with making decisions on technology and communication which affect my privacy, especially with the demonstrated ignorance of many of the government representatives with regard to technology? This is, of course, a concern even with the governments of the present day which have been freely elected, even if the choices are not often in concord with what I would select.

More threatening political movements have made their names known over the last few years. In the United States, there lurks the constant threat of the Tea Party, a movement occupied with many terrifying people, most of those with a blatant disregard for science. In the United Kingdom, quasi-fascist movements tussle with the established parties, which haven’t exactly shown a thrust towards freedom recently themselves. Then, there’s the threat of the resurgent East, with Russia being run by an authoritarian homophobe and China being run by a repellent, corrupt centralised party who seem even more content to restrict freedom than the governments of the West.

The United States has had the chance to assert itself as the viable alternative in place of the authoritarian or downright dictatorial governments of China and Russia. By instituting surveillance on its own populace worryingly close to something out of a fictional dystopia, it has taken a disconcerting step towards the Chinese or the Russians when it should be trying to move away, and that in itself frightens me far more than the vague threat of terrorism has ever done.

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