by Pierre Lemieux

…surveillance and control go hand in hand. Control may grow as a consequence of surveillance.


Let’s define the Surveillance State as a state that aims at preventive, everyday, mass surveillance.

Many people don’t mind the Surveillance State. Some like to be surveilled because it shows that somebody is paying attention to them. Others think that no information about them can be incriminating. Mark Reid, the city manager of Bluffdale, Utah, where a large NSA (National Security Agency) data center was being built, did not worry: “If someone reads my emails,” he said, “they’ll be pretty bored.” James Watson, winner of a Nobel Prize for his work on the structure of DNA, argued that compulsory DNA fingerprinting would only “take away our liberty to commit crime.”

Last week’s issue of The Economist describes one incarnation of the Surveillance State. It happens in China and, more particularly, in Xinjiang province, home of the Uighurs, an ethnic minority that also has the drawbacks of being Muslim and not especially enlightened. The indignity to which the Chinese state submits them are not more enlightened. The Uighurs can be tightly controlled because they are closely surveilled: ID cards tied to massive databases, constant video-surveillance and checkpoints, house-to-house inspections, a “convenience police station” for every square territory of 500 inhabitants (in the town of Hotan), government agents “adopted” by families, etc. This surveillance allows the authorities to rank individuals by degree of “trustworthiness,” and to send to reeducation camps those deemed unreliable.

All countries are “democratic” in the sense that their rulers need the consent, at least implicit, of some plurality of the population. Surveillance is also dangerous in formal democracies. One reason is that yesterday’s extreme cases often become today’s standard practice. Who ever thought that Americans would be, like mere Europeans, searched at “checkpoints,” that many searches would be rechristened “inspections,” or that border agents would have the right to search smartphones or other devices without a warrant, at the rate of 30,000 times a year (including searches of citizens’ devices)? The NSA has been spying on millions of Americans. Until about 2010, according to Wall Street Journal data, the FBI had more DNA records than the Chinese government (which started later in the competition), although the collection is proceeding so fast in China that America doesn’t “win” the race anymore; per capita, the two countries are now about equal.

In Xinjian, the state operates mass surveillance in order to control half the province’s population (the Uighurs). But surveillance and control go hand in hand. Control may grow as a consequence of surveillance.

In a companion article titled “Does China’s Digital Police State Have Echoes in the West?”, The Economist, which is not the most radical magazine in the world and has arguably become more non-libertarian over the last few years, admits that many of us in Western countries are right to be worried. (The Technology Quarterly section also focusses on surveillance.) The Stasi, the former East German police, would have envied today’s NSA. In our countries, “police forces can also have access to a Stasi’s worth of data.” Even in the digital world, the magazine counters, there must be places “where law-abiding people can enjoy privacy.”

It is true life is still much better in America than in China. That’s presumably what the vast majority of us want to maintain.

The problem of the Surveillance State is not so much what it knows as what it can do with what it knows. The Surveillance State is dangerous not so much because it violates some standard of privacy, but because surveillance fuels control. Once in place, a high level of everyday surveillance, like a fixed cost, implies a low marginal cost of information; it makes control less costly and more tempting for the state. By the cost of control, I mean the resource and political costs of imposing new laws and regulations. When the cost of something decreases, its users want more. The more the state knows, the more controls in will enforce in the future.

What the state, with its vast coercive powers, can do with information gathering suggests that a serious problem only exists when the state does it, or when it can seize information from private parties’ databases. Information given to private parties is only secure up to a government or court order.

To the extent that justifications for the state exist, they revolve mainly around matters of security, which do require some surveillance. Some features of today’s world–the return of religious wars, the low cost of international travel, and many other ways in which individuals, not all good savages à la Rousseau, are empowered, such as encryption, social networks, or car availability–may require more surveillance than was necessary in Victorian England or mid-19th-century Massachusetts. But I would argue that we are far passed the level of necessary and acceptable surveillance, and that Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning has become more relevant:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

It is, of course, a matter of trade-offs. The problem is when the state makes the trade-offs for everybody in an ever-expanding conception of its role.

To emphasize my point, “law-abiding people” must fear state surveillance because it makes it more more likely that they will become non-law-abiding without any change in their behavior. They will be caught for violating laws that they even did not know existed. Moreover–and this is my main argument–the “law abiding” will be ensnared by new laws adopted because state rulers know that enforcement costs are not as prohibitive as they used to be. The level of surveillance will multiply the number of new laws imposed on the former law-abiding.