A Comprehensive Demonstration of the Harms of Mass Surveillance

Composed by Logan Norris, Jeremy Hadfield, Sean Robinson, and Gabrielle Garner

For the International Public Policy Forum

On the topic Resolved: Mass surveillance is not a justified method of governmental intelligence gathering.

“The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door.” – G.K. Chesterton

Mass surveillance pervades every aspect of life in the digital age. The global surveillance network, codenamed ECHELON, has fifteen cooperating states and an extensive web of corporate ties and participating programs (Nabbali 2004). These ever-vigilant programs collect trillions of communications annually (Taylor 2014), can now monitor over 75% of the internet (Gorman 2013), and are expanding at a shockingly rapid pace (Von Drehle 2013). There are 30 million surveillance cameras deployed in the United States alone, shooting 4 billion hours of footage every week (Vlahos 2014). John Villesenor recognizes the significance of this: “We are crossing a threshold that has never been crossed in all of human history. It has become possible – even easy…to essentially document everything that has been said and done,” (Goodspeed 2012). Often, the damage that this surveillance creates is downplayed (Heller 2014). It is vital that society recognizes the long-term impacts and consequences of mass surveillance, from the collapse of people-ruled societies to the promotion of conformity, and that its claims at meager benefits are not sufficient to justify its use.


Framework and definitions:

Justified is defined as shown to be right or reasonable (Merriam Webster 2014). Three tenets that must be adhered to establish justification:

  1. Because mass surveillance is used on an international level, international laws, as represented by the International Covenant on Civil Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must be adhered to.
  2. In accordance with the UN’s interpretation, mass surveillance can only be justified if it is proportionate and necessary. If mass surveillance is abused in most cases then it is not justified.
  3. A cost-benefit analysis, weighing harms and benefits against one another, will be used to determine justification. A cost-benefit analysis is the most useful way to measure the justification of an action (Kee 2014).

Mass Surveillance is defined as the pervasive surveillance of an entire or substantial fraction of a population. Surveillance is usually carried out by governments but may also be done by corporations at the behest of governments (U.S. Legal 2014). Mass surveillance can be accomplished through advanced technologies or through spying and police organizations (Cornelius 2004).


Mass surveillance increases state opacity and leads to oppression:

“[A] democratic system demands that government be transparent and accountable to the people, not the other way around.” – American Civil Liberties Union

There is not a single country in the world that has a fully transparent surveillance program (Greenwald 2014). With mass surveillance, governments make the affairs of their people completely translucent while they are bound by no standard of openness themselves. These omniscient overseers are free to conduct whatever sort of search that pleases them – unrestricted by the people and behind thorough bulwarks of secrecy.

Mass surveillance programs throughout the world have sacrificed their translucency to prevent national security secrets from entering the public domain. The NSA constructed a highly secretive court, in which “the hearings are closed to the public and the rulings of the judges are classified, and rarely released after the fact,” (O’Neill 2014). The link between mass surveillance and opacity is also evidenced by the increasing opacity of the United States government after the growth of NSA surveillance. In 2013, a record percentage of Freedom of Information Act requests for government files were denied (Bridis 2014). Almost all of the refusals originated from the Defense Department.

Countries such as the United States often hire private contractors to carry out their surveillance work. Currently, 70% of the NSA’s budget goes towards hiring private contractors (Cohen 2013). While the practice is profitable, it reduces transparency, as it is harder to track the work of the contractors and determine whether their work is justified (Thiessen 2013). The people have no oversight or power over these contractors (Goldman 2014).

When there is no oversight over or disclosure about mass surveillance, it’s impossible for the people to make an informed decision about or check the powers of surveillance programs. As James Madison wrote, “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.” Unchecked government power leads to dangerous excess; power must be checked at every turn, the overwhelming evidence of history teaches us, or people will be abused. Countless regimes have perpetrated mass oppression and genocide because they were not checked by the people (Rummel 1993).


The abuse of systems of mass surveillance

Mass surveillance clearly breaks international law. A report given by the UN found that “the States engaging in mass surveillance have so far failed to provide…public justification for its necessity, and almost no States have enacted explicit domestic legislation to authorize its use” (Greenwald 2014).

Furthermore, the harms of a mass surveillance society outweigh the benefits, not just in America, but across the globe. Countries with endemic mass surveillance, such as China, North Korea, Iran, and East Germany give us a lucid view into the detrimental effects of mass surveillance.

In North Korea, citizens are under constant surveillance (France-Presse 2012). Authorities use an extensive network of informants that report individuals they suspect of subversive behavior (HRW 2014). North Korea uses this network to imprison anyone who practices free speech, political opposition, association, petition, or media representation (Winslow 2014). Mass surveillance has allowed North Korea to imprison over 200,000 in concentration camps with a 40% death rate (Amnesty International 2011). Instead of preventing terrorist attacks, mass surveillance turns governments themselves into terrorists that use technology to subjugate their citizens.

Iran has been christened one of the “State Enemies of the Internet” because of its drastic  measures of mass surveillance (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Using various digital forms of surveillance (Alimardani 2014), Iran gravely violates the freedom of information and multiple human rights (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Iran has used mass surveillance methods such as the wiretapping of phones and the monitoring of Internet activity against critics of the Iranian regime (Reuters 2012). Saleh Hamid was beaten with an iron bar by Iranian security agents who claimed that he was spreading propaganda against the regime, using Saleh’s own phone calls as evidence (Stecklow 2012). Anyone who is claimed to be a threat to the authoritarian government may be arrested and sent to Iran’s infamous Evin prison. Journalists, intellectuals, netizens and dissidents are held there for undisclosed amounts of time (Amnesty International 2014). Brutal conditions and horrendous interrogation procedures make Evin a “hell on earth” (Chiaramonte 2013).

China uses its mass surveillance, including over 30 million security cameras, to “crush its critics” (Langfit 2013). China has enacted legislation to secretly hold dissidents who challenge the Communist party (Buckley 2012). The regime used surveillance techniques to find activists and torture them for months in the name of ‘security’ (Lei 2012). For example, Ai Weiwei was held for three months and brutally beaten for speaking against the government (Foster 2014). China now monitors nearly every conversation to intimidate citizens into obedience (Langfit 2013). Chinese security agents can turn cellphones into listening devices, and Li Tiantian, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said that they eavesdropped on her conversations to track her movements and arrest her (Langfit 2013).

These despotic surveillance states are unnervingly similar to Western nations that are thought to be more exemplary. Documents reveal that UK and US surveillance agencies have manipulated online discourse in their favor with tactics of deception and repression, infiltrating activist groups with no conceivable connection to terrorism (Aevin 2014). They have targeted political candidates, activists, academics and lawyers (Aaron 2014). Muslim leaders who live exemplary lives have been subjecte

d to intense scrutiny (Greenwald 2014). This surveillance is used to coerce and oppress. For example, in 1963, the FBI sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., requiring him to commit suicide to prevent personal information that had been obtained through mass surveillance from being publicized (Corn 2013). Surveillance programs are also used for sheer voyeurism – one NSA employee spied on nine women for six years (Lewis 2013).

As it is used to abuse and silence entire populations, governmental intelligence gathering represents an implement of oppression rather than a benefit.


How surveillance breeds conformity

A substantial literature manifests that surveillance breeds conformity, silences dissent from state policies, inhibits creativity, and stifles intellectual freedom (Roche 2014; Tolstedt 1984). Using mass surveillance, governments have the power to see how long someone’s attention lingers on a webpage, how she expresses herself in communications, and what kinds of ideas she is being exposed to. This comprehensive data about our virtual persona means that intelligence agencies have an incredibly pellucid view of our minds, second, perhaps, to only ourselves.

One study (“Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor,” 2014) surveyed over 520 writers, and found that because of surveillance, 14% refrained from visiting controversial or suspicious websites, 27% expressed reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects, and 40% were averse to participating in social media. Another inquiry into the effects of surveillance on Internet search behavior revealed a significant decline in searches for sensitive terms after the NSA was publicized (Marthews and Tucker 2014).

These results demonstrate that without the option of privacy, individuals self-censor; they do not express dissenting views, voice opinions, or challenge the status quo. Thus, surveillance is more dangerous, if subtler, than censorship, the removal of an idea after it is expressed: it prevents ideas from ever being expressed. Free minds are key to free societies; anyone must be able to present their conception of the truth (Richards 2013), and surveillance places fetters on the mind, reinforcing compliance to the state and the imperative to act in obedience to norms (Greenwald 2012). This is illustrated by those societies that have fully invested in mass surveillance, such as North Korea, where individuals entirely conform to the government because of its all-seeing surveillance. As Edward Snowden remarked, “Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

The crippling psychological effects of a watched society are demonstrated by totalitarian nations. A watched society coincides more with a fear-instilling totalitarian regime stripped of rights than a free government. Such regimes have decreased life expectancies, economic growth, and stability. According to Harvard University, citizens in totalitarian regimes experience less individual liberty and political stability; chances of a finishing secondary school are 40% lower, infant mortality is 25% higher, and agricultural yields are 25% fewer. Totalitarian regimes are also more likely to exacerbate terrorism and end up in a perpetual cycle of violence and war (Siegle 2005).


Mass surveillance undermines societies

A variety of behaviors key for maintaining functioning societies, such as involvement, cooperation, and well-connected relationships, are undermined by mass surveillance. In post-WWII East Germany, the surveillance agency known as the Stasi established a society where every seventh individual was an informant (Koehler 1999). Here, a single informant was associated with a 10% decrease in organizational involvement (Jacob 2010). The surveillance also had a strong negative effect on social connectivity. In addition, the effects of surveillance remain today: there is a significant economic disparity between East and West Germany, as evidenced by unemployment rates: 13.5% in the East and only 7.2% in the West. This significant imbalance owes to the lingering deficiency in cooperation that is ultimately traced to the Stasi regime’s crushing surveillance (Jacob 2010).

Not only does surveillance damage relationships between individuals, it erodes trust between the state and the people, and between private companies and their customers. This is empirically supported by the explosion of distrust and mass protest that followed the release of the “Snowden files” in the United States (Osborne 2013).

Furthermore, surveillance’s eradication of trust has harmed the economy, especially technological companies. The cloud computing industry alone will lose $35 billion by 2016, and the total profits foregone due to surveillance will be almost $180 billion (Miller 2014). Draconian mass surveillance represses creativity and reduces productivity in workplaces, and both of these are key drivers of the economy (Ovsey 2014). Microsoft labels government snooping an “advanced persistent threat,” a term usually applied to malicious hackers. Experts in technology and the internet are deeply concerned that trust will deteriorate in the wake of mass surveillance (Anderson 2014). Surveillance has also weakened computer systems to gain access to their data, which has harmed the systems comprehensively to great effect on the economy (Holder 2014).

The U.S. has seen a growing controversy regarding its inability to separate systems of mass surveillance from independent legal matters. While many countries preach that mass surveillance is only used to thwart terrorist operations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit and the FBI have admitted that nearly 250 arrests have been made with illegally obtained information, and that they were instructed to lie about its origin (Shiffman 2013). This highlights an example of constitutional abuse and slippery illegal activity that is not proportional or necessary, reminiscent to the despotic Stasi, which expanded into jobs meant for other sectors of the government, “in essence becoming a state within a state” (Knabe 2014). The NSA now has more than 55,000 employees (not including private contractors), as compared to the Stasi’s 91,000 (Groll 2013).


Mass surveillance is impotent and counterproductive:

The unprecedented and brutal rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria begs the question: why didn’t the almost completely unhindered surveillance programs of Western nations detect the growing militant movement? The mass gathering of metadata has so far yielded no noteworthy assistance in the effort against the Islamic State, even though it uses the Internet to communicate (Pye 2013). The answer is simple: mass surveillance is inept, and it is even harmful to national security and efforts against terrorism.

An inquiry by the Review Group of the U.S. Federal Government failed to find a single case in which metadata collection provided crucial information in a terrorism investigation (Richardson 2014). In addition, the New America Foundation investigated 54 commonly cited NSA ‘successes’, and found that the agency “played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8% of these cases” (Bergen et al 2014). NSA director Keith Alexander has admitted that there has been only one terrorist plot in which mass surveillance played a significant role (Brinkerhoff 2013). Government claims about the NSA’s success have repeatedly been shown to be false (Beauchamp 2014).

Private contractors hired by surveillance agencies are not supervised, and thus the national security secrets they manage are at extreme risk. If they release information, it can be exploited by foreign actors for malicious ends. Edward Snowden, who worked for a private contractor, released national security secrets that have been stolen by Russia and China and are now an enormous threat (Dreyfuss 2013).

Moreover, one of the central devices to the rhetoric of those who support mass surveillance is that it will prevent the horrors of terrorist attacks like 9/11 from ever happening again. However, the intensive accumulation of data would not have stopped these massacres, as they resulted from “a failure to connect the dots, not a failure to collect enough dots,” (Medine 2014). Hijacker Khalid al-Midhar’s phone calls to other conspirators were listened to, but intelligence agencies failed to recognize their significance, despite repeated opportunities (Elliot and Meyer 2014). In fact, the sheer amount of data collected by mass surveillance would probably result in the communications between hijackers being lost (Kopstein 2014).

In addition, mass surveillance is, in several ways, counterproductive. Surveillance programs often hack encrypted communications and install ‘back doors’ in internet programs (Sasso 2014). These back doors can be opened by cyberterrorists, allowing them to utilize the government’s methods to wreak catastrophe to the economy and national security of the nation in question. Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data centers provide malicious actors opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities (Schneier 2014). With the onset of backdoors created by the NSA, there has been a seventeen-fold increase in the amount of cyberterrorist attacks against the United States (Goldsmith 2013).

Counter-terrorism efforts have been paralyzed by mass surveillance. Knowing of surveillance programs, terrorists have changed their communication patterns to avoid them (Starr 2014). This causes them to “go dark” on surveillance radar, and makes security programs blind to defend against their attacks (Yost 2014).

Furthermore, the abrasion of trust caused by mass surveillance is damaging to counter-terrorist efforts. The recent monitoring of German chancellor Angela Merkel undermined the central pillar of diplomacy: trust (Jeffries 2013). Surveillance demonstrates to Europeans that the U.S. does not act in their interests, but only to further its own international power (Knigge 2013). A strong European-American alliance has been crucial to combating terrorism and working towards stability in the Middle East (Mauer and Möckli 2013). Damaging that alliance will allow terrorism to expand in this already-chaotic area. This is not only an issue of transatlantic diplomacy, however. The injury of trust that surveillance causes will harm relations between all states, leading to an increase in scuffles and perhaps even wars, and thwarting progress towards agreement and peace.

Furthermore, the strategy of mass surveillance is ineffective, as it means that insights are neglected and the amount of spurious correlations found multiplies (Guillart 2014). A small and highly contextual level allows for far more effective intelligence gathering, with fewer mistakes and more results (Friedersdorf 2014). Mass surveillance has had remarkably few successes despite, or perhaps because of, its immense pool of data.



The inherent nature, negative results, and dysfunctionality of mass surveillance render it a thoroughly unjustified method for governmental intelligence gathering. Mass surveillance requires an opaque and unchecked government that inevitably begins to abuse the rights of its people. It negatively affects the behaviors and relationships of individuals, states, and companies. It is and has been used by international governments to oppress their people. It leads to a collapse of trust and a subsequent fallout in international relations, obstructing the struggle for peace and against terrorism; bolsters conformity; and undermines economic relationships, leading to a decline in overall affluence. Finally, mass surveillance is an impotent and counterproductive strategy of intelligence gathering.


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