Not Really Safe: Liberal Democracies and Digital Surveillance

Information technologies are all around today and provide people with possibilities that were unthinkable mere decades ago, such as near-instant communication, remote education, or online shopping. Yet this progress comes at a price because these technologies are also extremely pervasive and penetrate nearly every aspect of modern life. An important effect of this pervasiveness is gathering staggering amounts of information on people’s activities and daily life, ranging from shopping preferences to work and recreation.

The relative ease with which this information can be obtained creates conditions for the emergence of surveillance states comparable to the most efficient totalitarian regimes in history. Hubertus Knabe’s TED Talk offers a deservedly bleak representation of the Stasi, the East German secret police, using the information at its disposal to control and discredit opponents of the state. Yet this problem is not limited to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes because even democratic states have very few legal restrictions on data gathering that can be misused or intentionally used with harmful intent.

Knabe’s speech is essentially an insight into the inner workings of the dreaded Stasi, which was the secret police of East Germany during the Cold War. The author goes into extensive detail about the history of the Stasi and the lessons it learned from the Soviet secret police (Knabe 00:02:00 – 00:02:45). Knabe also describes the impressive thoroughness of the Stasi, such as having roughly one agent for every 180 people in the country (Knabe 00:03:31 – 00:03:40). Yet the essence of the speech is how Stasi used information for their ends. The exhaustive files on the country’s inhabitants provided them with a wealth of information that could be used in pursuit of their goals.

Instead of physically annihilating the opponents of the regime, the Stasi could gradually undermine their social life and destroy their self-confidence (Knabe 00:11:31 – 00:12:38). This approach was only possible because of the vast amounts of information gathered and used by the East German secret police. Hence, the possibilities for employing the same techniques in the age of digital surveillance are certainly something to consider.

One thing to keep in mind when speaking about digital surveillance in today’s world as compared to East Germany is how easy it is. A paper by Pingo and Narayan discusses how information and surveillance are easily available in the contemporary world. Back in the Cold War times, it was necessary to have one secret agent per every 180 citizens to achieve total surveillance – not counting hundreds of thousands of civilian informers (Knabe 00:03:31 – 00:03:40).

It meant that only an extremely efficient totalitarian state could aspire to something like that. Pingo and Narayan demonstrate that the situation has changed a lot since that time. Contemporary digital applications, such as “online calendars, diaries, social networks, blogs, podcasts, and messaging apps, etc.” provide a wealth of behavioral data and personally relevant information (Pingo and Narayan 5). This information is then stored at the servers of the companies which provide said applications. While the Stasi had to use tens of thousands of employees to gather their data, today’s people offer this data themselves and for free. It means that private companies and not only governments can engage in data gathering.

Another important aspect of data gathering and digital surveillance in today’s world is that using information for a malignant purpose is also relatively easy. An article by Blanco-Justicia and Domingo-Ferrer discusses some aspects of this problem and what can be done about it. To begin with, the data gathered on people is worth much even if one does not intend to use it directly. Even if the company does not use this data for any dubious purpose, it can still sell it to a third party that would. Moreover, even if the given company’s moral standing is impeccable, breaches in data safety are still possible (Blanco-Justicia and Domingo-Ferrer 83).

In other words, the mere fact of gathering and storing large amounts of personal data creates a potential for misuse. Thus, even when actors have no intent to use the digitally gathered data harmfully, it is entirely possible. In this sense, it does not necessarily take oppressive secret police – or any state agency at all – for the people to suffer because of digital surveillance.

The key question in discussing the contemporary digitized world through the comparison with the Stasi is whether a similar system of surveillance can only emerge in totalitarian states. Knabe himself seems to be an optimist in this regard, stating that liberal democracies are in less danger. From his perspective, there is “a fundamental difference” between gathering information to oppress the country’s citizens or protect them against threats (Knabe 00:16:11 – 00:16:14).

Yet this opinion does not hold up well to a closer examination. First of all, for practical purposes, the “threat” is something designated as such by the state – and all the Stasi did was protect the country from the designated threats. Secondly, as mentioned above, it is not only states that possess sufficient power to gather great amounts of personal data about people (Pingo and Narayan 5). Finally, even if the actor – be that the government or a private company – gathers information with only the best intentions in mind, data safety breaches allow malignant third parties access to this digitized data. All of this can happen in a liberal democracy as well, making Knabe’s stand on the matter a bit too optimistic.

To drive the point further, even democratic countries have woefully insufficient measures to check the effects of digital surveillance. As of now, the overreaching framework in terms of data privacy for most Western nations is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It outlines the basic principles of data handling, such as fairness, transparency, or purpose limitation, but does not elaborate on their specific application. It results in situations when keeping privacy becomes virtually impossible when using digitized services. For example, loyalty programs for customers do not even have an option for staying anonymous (Blanco-Justicia and Domingo-Ferrer 83).

It is doable technically, as demonstrated by Blanco-Justicia and Domingo-Ferrer in their article (85-90). Yet even liberal democracies lack legal requirements to provide such an option. It makes surveillance and centralized accumulation of personal data a logical outcome even in democratic countries.

To summarize, contemporary digital technologies allow the creation of surveillance systems on a par with the most efficient totalitarian states, and liberal democracies are not exempt. Back in the Cold War, it took a tightly run totalitarian country and large secret police to create a surveillance state. Yet contemporary digital applications ensure that people provide their personal data willingly and for free. Private companies can gather amounts of information that were previously only available to states, and stored digitized data can end up in the wrong hands even without deliberate harmful intent. On top of it all, there are few explicit legal provisions that would limit digital data gathering and protect privacy. With this in mind, democracy is not a panacea, and citizens of democratic countries are very much in danger of waking one day in a surveillance state.

Works Cited

Blanco-Justicia, Alberto, and Josep Domingo-Ferrer. “Privacy-Aware Loyalty Programs.” Computer Communications, vol. 82, 206, pp. 83-94.

Knabe, Hubertus. “The Dark Secrets of a Surveillance State.” TED. Web.

Pingo, Zablon, and Bhuva Narayan. “When Personal Data Becomes Open Data: An Exploration of Lifelogging, User Privacy, and Implications for Privacy Literacy.” Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Asia-Pacific Digital Libraries, edited by A. Morishima, A. Rauber, and C. L. Liew, Springer, 2016, pp. 3-9.