Mass Surveillance v. Right to Privacy

Posts Feb 09, 2020

Today, I'd like to weigh in on an ongoing debate that has the world divided. I'm talking, of course, about whether a citizen's right to privacy outweights national security concerns of the country. Should a citizen be subject to wiretapping and surveillance that they never consented to, in order to keep the borders of the nation free of bomb-wearing maniacs?

That is an impossible question, truth be told. Whichever side you choose, there are serious drawbacks. If you completely reject the State's incursions into your private life, there's a more-than-substantial chance that an enemy combatant shall take advantage of it. If, however, you forfeit your right to privacy, you hand over your most intimate details to the Government, possibly facilitating the rise of a totalitarian, police State.

The truth is, as is the case in most debates, there is no one right answer here. Let's say that the State has no right to engage in any kind of surveillance on its citizens. You're sitting at your dinner table, raving on about how noble the Government is, while your neighbor Ram is staring at the stick of C4 on the table, calling his co-conspirators and raving about how dumb the Government is. Completely plausible.

On the other hand, if the Government does have the right to engage in surveillance on its citizens, you'd be afraid of calling anyone ever again. Your neighbor Ram was taken away in the dead of night by a dozen masked commandos, and you can still hear his screams in your nightmares. Meanwhile, your friend Karun was arrested in broad daylight yesterday because he used the trigger-word "bomb" over the phone while referring to a girl he liked.

You might think that me equating mass surveillance with totalitarianism is a logical fallacy, but it's really not. In the initial stages, the Government would be hesitant of arresting anybody on terrorism or criminal charges. What if they turned out to be mistaken? They'd have turned the life of an innocent man upside down. Then, lo and behold, they turned out to be right! If Paresh had not been arrested when he was, his children would be motherless today. Well, don't they feel relieved, and a little bit heroic as well.

Time moves on, and the Government becomes more comfortable about arresting suspect citizens. Priya was planning to murder her boss. Ibrahim was planning to take out his parents. Ramesh was planning to wipe out the city of Mumbai. We know we're right, because we have audio clips and text messages where they can be heard planning it. We're heroes.

And then that fateful day comes. Your boss passes you over for a promotion that you rightfully deserve. In the heat of the moment, you call your wife and spit ruefully, 'I could kill him right now!'

Next thing you know, you're being whisked away by uniformed policemen with their chests puffed out importantly. You were planning to murder your boss, and we have the audio clip to prove it. And that's it. There'd be no turning back from that moment. Now, anyone who dared mutter anything unacceptable, no matter in what state of mind, would be arrested. And it would be completely acceptable.

See, the moment you take a questionable decision in the name of national security, you open a door that can never be closed again. Everything becomes about national security. You begin treating the very people you claim to be protecting as potential enemies of the State.

So, I think that the most acceptable option here is to strike a balance between the two extremes. Allow the State access to your life, but only to a certain, reasonable degree. If anything goes wrong even after that, well, there's nothing to be done. Not everything can be prevented.

In all the debates I've observed, over a variety of topics, participants seem to have this idea that only one option is absolutely correct, and the other horrendously wrong. It's polar opposites. No compromise. The moment you discount any opposing view as being not even a little bit valid, you welcome intolerance into your mind.

It's high time that people realized something.

Doubt is not a weakness. Doubt is what keeps man open-minded.

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