It is a mistake to frame the recent US and European massive surveillance revelations in terms of the privacy of individuals. What is at stake is not privacy at all, but the power of the state over its citizenry.
What surveillance really is, at its root, is a highly effective form of social control. The knowledge of always being watched changes our behavior and stifles dissent. The inability to associate secretly means there is no longer any possibility for free association. The inability to whisper means there is no longer any speech that is truly free of coercion, real or implied. Most profoundly, pervasive surveillance threatens to eliminate the most vital element of both democracy and social movements: the mental space for people to form dissenting and unpopular views.
Many commentators, and Edward Snowden himself, have noted that these surveillance programs represent an existential threat to democracy. This understates the problem. The universal surveillance programs in place now are not simply a potential threat, they are certain to destroy democracy if left unchecked. Democracy, even the shadow of democracy we currently practice, rests on the bedrock foundation of free association, free speech, and dissent. The consequence of the coercive power of surveillance is to subvert this foundation and undermine everything democracy rests on. (more…)