Government Surveillance: The Right to Privacy (2018)

Conference Recap

Last week’s event was wonderful and full of energy. Despite a few technical difficulties, the event was interesting, with our guest speakers interacting with the public. We would like to thank the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme for coming and talking about Government surveillance to our audience. Even though not everyone being on stage, the whole team is behind these events.

​Our two last events are on Wednesday April 11th, with the 4èmes and 5èmes (7th and 8th graders) at 9h-12h30. This event is our biggest lasting for approximately 4 hours. In true HRT fashion, have an intuitive debate with the audience.


We decided to do some research on different types of government surveillance around the globe, and put together some articles for you to get informed. Indeed, depending on the country, its laws and political situation, the legitimacy of government surveillance varies, and the surveillance program can differ to correspond to different uses.

​In 2017, a journalist from the BBC was given the opportunity to test the effectiveness of China’s government surveillance. He tried to get lost in a city of about 3.5 million inhabitants – and was located by the authorities within seven minutes. This experiment says a lot about how far government surveillance goes in China. Not only can authorities locate any individual, it’s estimated that there are about 20 to 30 million CCTV cameras in the country, but they can also determine who that person meets with frequently, who its relatives are, what car belongs to that individual and much more.

Why such an intense surveillance?
The data collected is used for various different reasons. First of all, it’s an easy way to arrest or to increase the surveillance of those that speak or act against the government. China is the country that has arrested the most people because of their Internet history. It’s also a way to keep a close eye on ethnic minorities, or even intimidate them. But the surveillance is also used to go against light crimes, such as jaywalking. In the city of Jinan for example, people are publicly shamed by having a picture and personal information displayed on a screen when they cross the road during the red light. This has made the number of jaywalkers drastically decrease, but is it really worth it?

Even more surprising, there is a Chinese park in which the restrooms are equipped with a facial-recognition technology to make sure no one takes more toilet paper than they should. But unlike some other countries, China is not really trying to hide that they are intensely surveying the population. They have even announced that they are developing a “Social Credit System”, which could be implemented in 2020. How much credit an individual has will be determined by his daily habits, for example his activity on social media or how regularly he pays bills, as well as by how well he interacts with others. The ranking will appear publicly and will for example influence what jobs a person gets or what schools his children can go to.
Although this is quite frightening from a western perspective, it’s unlikely that there will be strong disagreements or even true discussions about it within China. As an article from the Washington Post mentions, many Chinese consider that “the government is just trying to be helpful.”

​In early September 2017, news was released that the Mexican government seemed to be threatening several different organizations and intending to infect their device with an advanced spying software. The president of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (an organization dedicated to investigate journalism in Mexico to prevent corruption), Claudio X. Gonzales Guajardo, received a number of SMS messages from the sophisticated “spyware” Pegasus. Pegasus allows the sender or attacker to access files on the targeted device, such as text messages, emails, passwords, contacts list, calendars, videos and photographs. The attacker can even choose to turn the microphone or camera of the infected device on at all times. But most importantly, this software is exclusively sold to governments.
Similarly, it has also been revealed that these spy attempts have been aimed at the National Action Party, a party in opposition to the current government. One cannot help but wonder whether the Mexican Government is trying to silence or interfere with the work of these different organizations. It has been agreed that the Pegasus software has not been used for legitimate purposes, and it is highly unlikely that the government received any judicial approval to hack these devices.

​After passing a law in May 2015, the French government is now allowed to monitor the phones and emails of a suspect terrorist without consent of a judge. Furthermore, law requires Internet service providers to make data (meta data, Web-browsing, and general Internet use) available to intelligence agencies. However, the United Nations committee for human rights has made a fairly good point: they warned that the surveillance powers given to the French government were excessively broad. This all happened so fast, not many analyzed the law to check if it was unconstitutional. Whether or not this choice was a good one, something had to be done to calm the people after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The worries did not end there as François Hollande had referred the legislation as the constitutional council so that the law would not be challenged as unlawful.


Although this cartoon is already more than a decade old, published by the Washington Post in 2006, its theme is now more relevant than ever. The idea that is depicted is the irony in government surveillance going against people’s freedom, that terrorists loathe so much. Considering that terrorism is one of the main reasons for government surveillance to be in place, or at least one of the main arguments to justify it. Undeniably, government surveillance does help fighting terrorism – to a certain extent.

After Edward Snowden revealed confidential information about a NSA surveillance program, the now former director of the NSA, Keith Alexander, asserted that surveillance programs had helped to eliminate about 50 potential terrorist threats in over 20 countries. He also added that the number of people that had access to the data was extremely restricted – he could not even access his daughter’s emails if he wanted to.

On the assumption that these statements are true, government surveillance might not be such a threat to freedom and privacy after all. As long as an individual is not suspected in any way, there is no reason for him to believe that he is being intensely surveyed like shown in the cartoon. Unfortunately, cases of surveillance abuses have also been reported. This is especially true in dictatorships or in authoritarian regimes. Most of the time, the concerned individuals aren’t related in any way with terrorism.

In Turkey for example, a great many individuals have been arrested or at least interrogated because of their activity on social media. The former Miss Turkey for instance was convicted for sharing a satirical poem on her Instagram account, said to be insulting Erdogan. She was later released on the condition that she would not offend him again over the next five years. But it’s not just in countries where the liberty of speech is restrained that citizens fear that government surveillance could go too far.

Since the cartoon was published in 2006, the concern has become much more of a topical issue in America as well. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 47% of Americans worry that anti-terrorism programs go too far and endanger civil liberties. In 2010, only 1/3 of Americans thought so. And yet, in 2015, nearly half of Americans (49%) expressed thoughts that anti-terrorism policies had not gone far enough to protect them adequately.

Obviously no one wants to live in a society like the one described by George Orwell in 1984, but at the same time the public – particularly certain elements of the media- is prone to criticize those that refuse to cooperate with the government’s surveillance when it comes to fighting terrorism. After an attack in Westminster last March, it was found out that the terrorist had used Whatsapp just before his attack. But no one could have accessed these last messages because of Whatsapp’s encryption. The messaging app was heavily criticized for this and the Sun published a provoking article “What side are you on, Whatsapp?”. Similarly, Apple was criticized after the San Bernardino attack because they refused to help the FBI unlock the shooter’s phone. They would have had to create a software going against their own security measures. Although these security measures are a somewhat reassuring, guaranteeing that the data stays private, they’re also one of the mains reasons why government surveillance is not always effective against terrorism.

The debate on whether or not privacy is an inalienable human right, even if it costs lives, continues, and yet, for many people the dilemma between wishing for freedom and wishing for safety still remains.


What does Government Surveillance mean?
Surveillance is the act of closely observing an individual or a group, usually one that is subject to suspicion. ‘Government surveillance’ is a type of surveillance which is done by a government or a governmental organization. Here is a great video you can watch to clear things up and hopefully shed some light on our theme and its significance:

What does Mass Surveillance mean?
Now that we know what ‘surveillance’ is, and that it originates from the government, let’s dig further and uncover what ‘mass surveillance’ means. Mass surveillance is the intricate surveillance of an entire or substantial fraction of a population in order to monitor that group of citizens.

Why Is This Important?
It is important to know in order to really grasp the meaning, the significance of this year’s theme. By gathering the population’s information and storing it, an otherwise constitutional government is infringing on the right to privacy. This is done in the name of “terrorism” but statistics show that the frequency, and the risks haven’t changed. The U.K, according to Edward Snowden, has one of the biggest forms of data storage: Using TEMPORAL, the British Government collects all the data that has been accessed or sent through the web and transfers it to a intricate system of servers. This data is then ready for later use, being tagged with words appearing in the text, audio file, …