Online Privacy

This is a speech that I wrote as part of a debate for one of my other subjects, International Human Rights & Law. It focuses on ideas of privacy on the internet, and the level of access to citizen’s online correspondences governments should have, and these are issues that we have already touched on in Networked Media.

Privacy is a sacred and basic human right, one that is inherently violated when governments access its citizen’s emails, texts and other forms of electronic media, supposedly in the interests of National Security.

Governments shouldn’t be granted this level of access because: it infringes on one of our crucial human rights, it has never shown to be actually effective in protecting national security, and those in government cannot necessarily be trusted with this sort of power.

As Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. This is exactly the situation faced by citizens who are having their online communications constantly monitored by governments: their essential liberty is being violated with the intentions of granting some sort of temporary safety. The individual’s right to this liberty of basic privacy is enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. This is something that is clearly violated by government’s accessing citizens private online correspondences.

In our set textbook, Geoffrey Robertson described the crucial importance of the right to privacy, saying that “privacy is a value which calls for protection because of the individual’s psychological need to preserve an intrusion-free zone of personality and family”. This right to privacy is included in all main human rights treaties, and allowing government’s to inherently access its citizens emails and private online correspondences obviously violates this basic right.

These issues have come to prominence this year after the NSA leaks from Edward Snowden, revealing that the agency keeps a record of emails, Facebook posts and instant messages, as well as massive amounts of raw Internet traffic. But if most of the people that are being monitored aren’t breaking laws, why should their basic right to privacy be violated? If they aren’t abusing any human rights, why should their own human rights be abused? Privacy is at the root of human expression, and its absence will restrict creative opinions, and diverse political expression. The government’s purpose is to be open and transparent, and these forms of underground, concealed spying on innocent civilians is in direct contradiction to this. Edward Snowden himself summed it up perfectly by saying “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity”, but with the government’s increasing reliance on accessing its citizens private online communications, we are moving steadily closer to this reality.

Even if we put aside the human rights issues and fundamental violations that this form of surveillance involves, we see that it hasn’t even been proved to have been effective in upholding national security. Once it becomes common knowledge that communications online are being closely monitored, people will begin to act differently, resulting in real criminal behaviour moving to more underground areas. People will always find a way around this sort of surveillance, meaning that only law abiding people will be spied on. A famous quote by Cardinal Richelieu says: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang them”. Well now governments have overwhelming wealths of information through these monitored online communications,and this will inevitably lead to innocent people being persecuted.

There is no solid, provable evidence that the government’s accessing of citizens emails and other online correspondences has directly led to protecting the national security. We haven’t seen proof that it has prevented a terrorist attack for example, but there are numerous occasions where this so called ‘right’ has been abused to target innocent individuals. Articles revealed under the Freedom Of Information Act state that a division of the Department Of Homeland Security produced daily briefings on the Occupy Wall Street Protests, which included passing on private information to third parties. This is a department that was founded in order to combat terrorism, violating citizens sovereign rights in order to prevent a peaceful protest. Another example is David Petraeus, the director of the CIA who was forced to resign after the FBI uncovered emails indicating he was having an affair with his biographer. Again, this was a government agency abusing their access to private emails in matters that were not endangering the national safety, and this event led many to ask that “when the CIA director cannot hide his activities online, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Governments aren’t all-powerful omniscient forces that should and can be trusted with this huge level of information and control that is gained through this sort of data collection. This level of information is something is easily corrupted and can have significant consequences if it is manipulated. It is entirely subjective how ‘national security’ is defined, and for many governments this will involve controlling ‘enemies of the state’ and political dissidents, rather than true threats to security. We’ve seen time and time again that this rhetoric of there being a ‘right’ to violate individual’s privacy in order to protect national security is baseless, and has merely been used to mask the true intentions of monitoring civilians.

In many instances, government’s have used this power to protect their own interests against troublesome individuals or dissidents, rather than in the interests of national security. Although we may trust the current government with this power, once it becomes enshrined in law and turns into a common practice, it will be near-impossible to prevent it if it is hijacked by a different government in the future for authoritarian aims or the like. Justice William O. Douglas summarised this argument when he said that “taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen – a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a person’s life”.

In conclusion, we cannot allow governments the right to arbitrarily access all of its citizens emails, texts, and other forms of electronic media under the veil of ‘National Security’. Sacrificing this privacy would be to revoke one of our basic and innate human rights, and would lead to a restriction on creative thinking and divergent political opinions. This form of surveillance has also never been proved to actually be effective in maintaining national security, as the real criminals opt for more underground methods, while law abiding citizens may be targeted for their beliefs or merely by the company they keep.

Finally, allowing this sort of omniscient right to the government is may lead to significant consequences in the future, especially if manipulated by leaders with ulterior motives. Privacy is one of our most sacred and inherent human rights, one that’s importance can only truly be realised when it is lost, and we must protect it from this sort of government spying and monitoring. Because, as Billy Graham said, “Once you’ve lost your privacy, you realize you’ve lost an extremely valuable thing”.

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