“You need the haystack to find the needle.” – Former National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander
Government surveillance today is all about exploiting the idea of surveillance for spying purposes. Today governments have been seen to be adding useless data about their people and calling this “surveillance”. Adding irrelevant data about all of the people in the country (to the “haystack”) makes absolutely no sense and makes it even harder to sort through all of the useless data to find out information about terrorists (the “needle”). The people these agencies are trying to find are people who are most certainly not part of the everyday society and adding their information is more than useless, it hinders this surveillance. The spying of their own people must not be disguised as “protective surveillance” because it simply is not “protective surveillance” and it’s costing many lives. If the government want to spy on their own people then that’s fine, but when they start using resource specifically dedicated to finding and stopping terrorist plots then it most certainly isn’t right.
Breaking this idea down slightly, if you think about how a terrorist detection system works, it will always produce false positives and false negatives. The people who have designed this system have two options, either they increase the threshold so that there are more false positives to be safe, or they decrease the threshold so that there is a risk of false negatives. By having such a large database of information the only possible option is to lower the threshold, leading to the increase of false negatives and the risk of a terrorist attack going unnoticed. By having all of the citizens of a country in a terrorist detection system it inherently leads to there being more false negatives because the government are simply unable to deal with every false positive that would be created. The spying of all citizens also causes more problems because it means that when scanning through all of the internet traffic more resource is put towards spying on citizens as opposed to looking for terrorism. When scanning through the information they try to put a name to each piece of information as opposed to scanning the traffic for data related to terrorism before linking the potentially terrorist-related data to a name/group.
The solution to all of this is to stop the mass surveillance that is currently taking place and replace it with more in-depth analysis of a smaller data pool. Many of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the past have all been preventable and only due to the lack of analysis of data were they allowed to take place. An example of this is the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 where one of the two people who planted the bombs was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database and yet the NSA did not pick up on this. Whilst protective surveillance is not the solution to these terrorist attacks, they are crucial in providing a level of safety for the people and governments must not be allowed to abuse this surveillance.
One way of making sure that this is implemented and more importantly, ensuring that all of the surveillance done by the government is both as ethical as possible and effective, is by making the government surveillance operations open. Transparency is crucial in ensuring that mass surveillance is carried out effectively and this, most certainly, is not the case right now with whistle-blower Edward Snowden only revealing the tip of the iceberg about the surveillance and spying operations carried out by the National Security Agency. Many large corporations are already calling for these reforms to take place and it’s as much our duty as their duty to make clear to governments across the world that they must become more transparent when it comes to mass surveillance.
By having more transparent surveillance it will also, in turn, allow for governments to pass more laws regarding surveillance with much more ease. Currently one of the big reasons that people do not want more surveillance laws to be passed, allowing their government to carry out more surveillance, is because they don’t know how this data is going to be used and where this data is going to be in many years time. The transparency of government mass surveillance would not only be more effective because it would be streamlined, but it would also allow for the government to gain more power to carry out this surveillance, further increasing the effectiveness of this surveillance. Look at the Draft Communications Data Bill (more commonly known as the Snooper’s Charter) in the UK, the response that it has been receiving is very negative and one of the reasons for this is that people don’t know about how it will affect them and how their data will be used.
Unless surveillance is carried out in an open and morally correct way, then it will never be effective.