Privacy and the Defence of Democracy

Monitor Guelke

Much has been written about the dangers in Britain of the growth of the ‘surveillance state’ as a consequence of the so-called War on Terror. The usual exhibits submitted in evidence for this claim include the vast quantity of CCTV cameras per head of population, government plans for monitoring every citizen’s internet and phone activity, and the all too common incidence of local councils turning to invasive tools of surveillance in pursuit of trivial offences. These developments are indeed noteworthy, but what is conspicuously absent from the op-ed pages where such events are decried is a coherent statement of why surveillance should be such a cause for concern. Articulating just what it is that is wrong with surveillance seems something of a challenge. Many of the arguments that dominate the philosophical literature invoke notions that would strike many as rather airy fairy: spatial metaphors that try to make the case for an inviolate ‘zone’ or ‘sphere’ which cannot be permissibly interfered with.

Of course, surveillance is hardly alone in this. For many years, there has been a fiercely contested debate over just what it is that is wrong with terrorism itself. At first this might seem surprising: terrorism, unlike privacy, takes place out in the objective world. Surely what is wrong with terrorism is that it kills people in large numbers. Right? Wrong. Or at least, numbers of deaths cannot be the whole story. For one thing, as an analysis of terrorism, it is historically parochial – that is to say parochial in time rather than space, ignoring what the wider experience of the ‘age of terrorism’ might have to tell us. Mass casualty terrorism of the sort witnessed on 9/11 is a comparatively recent phenomenon; previously the paradigm was ‘few dead, many watching’. Even taking the fairly anomalous year of 2001 as typical, the numbers of deaths from terrorism have always been dwarfed by the more mundane threats such as car accidents.

Viewing terrorism as simply another form of political violence – just another form of antinomian, unrestrained immorality – has led to the mistake of formulating policy as if what one does has no effect on what one’s opponent will do: ‘they will try to kill as many people as possible no matter how one conducts counter-terrorism strategy, so it is pointless to show any restraint’. The resulting disproportionate policy has frequently eroded minority community support for the police, as happened with the Catholic community in Northern Ireland; many report this as happening with the Muslim community in contemporary Britain. Furthermore, if one identifies ‘amorality’, say, as the distinctive characteristic of terrorism, then terrorism is as much a crime of thought as it is one of action, and by turning the focus inwards, justifies the preoccupation with extremist ideology. A number of people across Europe might be said to ‘share’ the ideology of Al-Qa’ida, in that they think America and ‘the West’ are engaged in a crusade against Muslims and that the gender equality and sexual freedom enjoyed in such societies are immoral. But the number of people amongst those who would actually take part in any violence is tiny.

One of the better answers to the question ‘what is distinctively wrong with terrorism?’ is also instructive in identifying the dangers of excessive surveillance. Samuel Scheffler[1] argues that violence is a tool terrorists use to try to destabilise the existing social order. Violence hits at random to undermine the assumption that the existing social arrangements are safe and can offer protection to its citizens. The aspiration is that people will rethink their stake in the existing social structure and withdraw their co-operation in favour of self-preservation. Groups involved in terrorist violence, he surmises, ‘want people running for cover’. If we see terrorism as threatening social relations as well as lives, we can see the distinctively political threat such violence poses. Much has been written in recent years about the importance of strong social ties of generalised trust and networks of reciprocity that make up ‘social capital’. Amongst others, Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone shows that such ties are essential to the effective operation of democracy, and makes the case for the importance of associational activity in building this societal trust.

Where his analysis is useful to articulating just what is wrong with surveillance is his distinction between straightforward terrorism and ‘state terror’. Many analysts are keen to point out that states often engage in terrorism. Scheffler accepts this, but points out that much of the violence states engage in that are described as ‘terrorist’ (such as the ‘disappearance’ of dissidents or the violent imposition of curfews), actually takes a subtly different form. Instead of attempting to disrupt the social order, the aim is rather to enforce it. In a regime of state terror, the state deliberately eliminates the features of impartiality and predictability of the rule of law, administering laws arbitrarily and sowing distrust by spreading wide networks of informers who may denounce people arbitrarily. The aim of this distrust is to restrict the development of social relations. The agents of state terror ‘want people marching in step’ to foster an atmosphere in which the most sensible strategy to adopt is to attract as little attention to oneself as possible.

I suggest there is a simpler case to make for informational privacy serving a necessary function which relies on this subtler understanding of terrorism. My claim bears some resemblance to the common trope that the liberal way of life makes us uniquely vulnerable to terrorism. Instead, I maintain that aspects of our way of life make privacy important to the strength of democracy. Two big risks arising from contemporary surveillance policy spring to mind. First, that people’s sensitive personal information could be accidentally disclosed. Second, that people’s fear that this might be the case will chill the associational activity necessary to effective democracy.

Our activity on the internet reveals extremely sensitive information about us. We have very different beliefs and practices, much of which would be offensive in the extreme if it were to be forced into the open. Such disclosure would put pressure on our ability to work together – it is harder, if you are of a conservative disposition, to join Fred’s campaign to keep the local hospital open once you have discovered he goes to swingers’ parties. It’s harder, if you are of a liberal disposition, to work with Mary in the PTA once you have learned how much time she spends on extreme political websites.

Accidental disclosure of sensitive private information is a genuine risk wherever large amounts of information are recorded and stored. In recent years the British government has had a particularly dismal record of clumsily releasing private information into the public sphere. It might be argued that this could never happen to information gathered by surveillance, but crucially citizens would only have to believe that there was a risk for damage to be done.

There is overlap between Scheffler’s account of state terror and what has been described as ‘chill’, though there are of course very important differences. Firstly there is the difference of degree, which cannot be understated: the difference between a mountain and a molehill, after all, is only one of degree. Secondly there is the crucial issue of intent: regimes of state terror deliberately set out to destroy associational activity and ruin the prospects for trust between citizens: the worry about ‘chill’ extends only as far as the claim that surveillance policies may inadvertently weaken associational activity and interpersonal trust. However, they weaken them at a time when one of the dominant themes of democratic theory is that democracies are becoming less effective precisely because of a weakening of associational activity and interpersonal trust.

Terrorists kill and destroy property, but unlike the serial killer or arsonist, that is not their ultimate purpose. Terrorists seek to subvert the social order, wrecking existing social trust. The networks of trust and reciprocity threatened have attracted a lot of attention from democratic theorists in recent years. It takes more time to build them up from scratch than it does to ruin them. Surveillance policies may be counterproductive in two senses: they can wreck needed trust in the police in minority communities and they can also dissolve citizens’ ability to conceal their private lives, which plays such a crucial role in smooth social relations. Furthermore just the feeling of vulnerability that comes with the awareness of others’ access to one’s private data may be enough to motivate a withdrawal from public life. To a degree chill is a subjective matter, as ‘the chill’ is a result of what any particular individual judges the likely consequences of their actions to be. But society nonetheless has an interest here because it derives benefit from the well-functioning democratic process which in turn relies on associational activity and interpersonal trust. The preservation of democracy is not just a matter of security.

John Guelke
Research Fellow
Centre for Global Ethics
University of Birmingham


[1] Samuel Scheffler, ‘Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?’, The Journal of Political Philosophy (Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2006), pp. 1-17.

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