PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Surveillance and Control

By Holger Mey

History has shown that surveillance is an important tool for states to deal with, and to contain, pandemics like the plague, cholera, etc. and now the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).  Surveillance, tracking, control – all those measures have always been, and are still being, used by states no matter what their political and social system is.  Totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, autocracies, but also democracies – they all apply in one way or another, and to various degrees, surveillance technologies and control mechanisms. 

From neighborhood control to the persecution of minorities…  History is full of examples where totalitarian regimes manage to gather data on their citizens and control their behavior – even without biometric data analytics and artificial intelligence.  Today, the means to literally control each and everybody at all times and everywhere are impressive and/or frightening, depending on one’s perspective.

All those technologies, procedures, and measures are a means to an end.  In democracies, both ‘end’ and ‘means’ rightfully need to be put into question by the people and need to be justified by the government.  Hence, one cannot make it simple by claiming “The end justifies the means!”.  Society needs to agree on the ends and on the appropriateness of the particular means.  Beyond any doubt, there are means that are clearly not justifiable in democratic societies, no matter how understandable and legitimate the respective objectives might seem.  

Surveillance technologies are being used by states, for instance, to control whether citizens observe social rules and comply with laws and regulations.  Law enforcement is important since the violation of rules without negative consequences undermines the law awareness of citizens and, therefore, the peaceful and respectful living together in a society.  The alternative to law and order is anarchy, the rule of thumb, and the question of who can pull the colt faster or can afford to pay for bodyguards and gated communities.  Those educated and well-mannered individuals who do not need written rules and control because they behave responsibly and respectfully anyway shouldn’t assume that others do the same.  Does anyone seriously believe that people will obey speed limits without radar control?  Even if the majority did (which I doubt), there will be many who do not and put their own and, more importantly, other people’s life at risk.  On the other hand, aren’t there perhaps too many, and often incomprehensible and even absurd, rules?

Surveillance and control have been abused by states over and over again in history.  One could even argue that states, in a way, have been the biggest threat to human beings.  Historically, it can be shown that states have killed, or are responsible for the death of, more people (in wars, concentration camps, etc.) than any crime organization or tribe.  Hence, a certain or even fundamental skepticism vis-à-vis the state is appropriate, justified, legitimate, and understandable.

The problem is that many intellectual critics of state control fail to differentiate between democracies and totalitarian states.  They rightly refer to the mere possibility of the abuse of, and unchecked, power but, at the same time, they put Western democracies into the same box as countries like North Korea or China.  While the means appear to be similar, the ends are different, for sure. 

If it is about controlling certain values and rules, the key questions are: (1) What actually are the rules that are being controlled? And (2) who controls the controllers? 

The first issue relates to values and the question of who determines the rules.  Are we talking about the rules of the Communist Party of China imposing their ideas of what determines “good behavior” upon their people or is it about the rules of a free, liberal, democratic, constitutionally-founded, division of power accepting state where all rules are based on law and can be challenged and disapproved by independent judges? 

The second question is about institutionalized checks and balances that control those in power and their agencies and allow citizens to question in court any governmental act and official decision.  We need a political system that assures modern surveillance technologies and the potential to control each and everybody and everything will not be abused.

Those who are rightfully concerned about this in principle should not, as has been mentioned above, mix up democracies and totalitarian regimes.  Simply criticizing the means, and trying to stonewall technological developments, will lead nowhere.  Surveillance and control will remain a fact of life and ever more so.  But criticizing guns as a means to kill people rather than differentiating between the gun in the hand of the criminal and the gun in the hand of the police officer is missing the point.  A key challenge for our democracies is to make sure the personality/psychological selection in the police recruiting process is extremely tough, that the police force is very well educated, trained, and equipped, well paid and thoroughly controlled.

Future challenges, be it pandemics, organized crime, artificial intelligence, etc. require both to have the best and the brightest people working for our governments and our societies, i.e. technocrats and experts, and, at the same time, democratic institutions and procedures that enable the control of those who control us.