It was Jane Austen, back in 1816, who wrote that "every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies." That neighborhood is getting quite a bit bigger these days as our digitized lives and economies extract ever-deepening rivers of private data from the daily lives of citizens.
Of course, with that has also come an increasingly fraught debate over what "voluntary" and "spying" actually means in a world where surveillance isn’t only ubiquitous but touted as a key condition for both our private and collective security.
A Danish spy story
A ripe example comes out of Denmark, where Danish police announced last month that Lars Findsen, a former Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) chief, could face up to 12 years in prison for treason over charges of classified information leaks. Only days later, the scandal grew further as Claus Hjort Frederiksen, the country’s defense minister from 2016 until 2019, confirmed that he is facing similar charges, Copenhagen-based daily Politiken reports.
The charges against Frederiksen followed his comments in local media the past two years about a top-secret and longstanding agreement between Denmark and the U.S. over wiretapping and internet surveillance, allowing Washington to use Danish data to spy on European countries and politicians, including former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
With Danish authorities having made few public statements, the story is still largely shrouded in mystery.
What mostly drew the ire of Danes following the 2020 revelations was the indication that Danish citizens were likely spied on as well in the secret wiretapping deal. Last month, Danish Minister of Justice Nick Hækkerup called the situation paradoxical, as “the secrecy of the intelligence service is part of the foundation that preserves our freedom.”
Former Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) chief Lars Findsen
OSD Deputy Secretary of Defense / Wikimedia Commons
Security v. democracy
The same tensions also arose earlier this month in Israel, where the government launched an investigation into reports that the police had illegally used the technology firm NSO’s spyware product Pegasus against its citizens without a court order, including a key state witness in the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The investigation, revealed by the Tel Aviv business magazine Calcalist, comes after years of reports that NSO, under licenses from the Israeli Defense Ministry, has sold Pegasus to authoritarian governments that — rather than catching terrorists — have used it to hack the phones of activists and politicians.
One of the freest countries in the world, is now having its own version of the Snowden scandal.
Indeed, ever since Edward Snowden cemented his name in history through the biggest security leak in U.S. history, we continue to be reminded that state surveillance is rarely (never?) limited to a small and well-deserving group of bad guys.
Which begs the question: How do we reclaim our individual right to privacy without compromising our collective security?
As the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wave of terrorism across Europe had governments rushing to expand surveillance capacities, we were ensured that the maturity of Western democracies made any fears of sinister purposes unwarranted.
It is telling that Denmark, one of the freest and most trusting countries in the world, is now having its own version of the Snowden scandal — a kind of quiet flip side to the rise of authoritarian leaders in the West who are much louder and more open about challenging the principles of democracy.
The limitations of regulation
Many now argue that surveillance policy should include not only a rollback of certain practices, but also strong safeguards against executive overreach and abuse in the future. Professor Lawrence Capello, in his book None of Your Damn Business: Privacy in the United States from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, argues that such legal frameworks won’t be so easy to put into place, in large part because laws always lag behind the technology.
That is of course amplified today as the speed of technological progress is growing exponentially and a vast network of devices have made the capacity to surveil a precondition for our techno-centric society to work.
There are never guarantees that intelligence services abide by the law.
And even with legal barriers in place, there are never guarantees that intelligence services abide by them. After all, the main issue so far hasn’t been the absence of regulation, but rather a system where optimizing state influence, domestic and foreign, is a priority within the state security apparatus that trumps privacy rights and legal considerations.
As Snowden said in a recent interview with Politiken, in the wake of the Danish spy scandal, if Denmark gives the U.S. access to large amounts of data, it’s unlikely that information unrelated to direct security threats will amicably be handed back to Copenhagen. “It is not about Denmark being an enemy, but about the NSA being part of the American state, which seeks to maximize its power and influence in all corners of the world. So it is also their job to understand Denmark, the Danish government, the hierarchy in your military.”
Still, our fate may ultimately be in the hands of the private sector. Finally, after years of being tone-deaf on public concerns, tech giants like Google and Apple may be waking up to the need for robust privacy barriers in order to retain customers. In January, Google and Boston Consulting Group released a joint study showing that nearly half of consumers in Canada and the U.S. were uncomfortable with sharing their data to receive targeted ads. Meanwhile, a 2020 EU Fundamental Rights Survey study carried out as governments discussed using technology to combat COVID-19 showed that 41% of Europeans don’t want to share any personal data with private companies.
As such, while it’s often been tartly stated that enough people will never get off give up internet services to make a dent in data gathering, it might, in the end, be the citizens themselves who need to get the job done.