Recently, it was revealed on the news that the NSA and its UK counterparts have been using ‘leaky’ apps such as Angry Birds to hack into the user’s smartphone, spying on the information uploaded by users onto the internet through their smartphones, such as Facebook or Twitter. This way, the surveillance authorities will be able to receive personal detail, including age, location, and even sexual orientation, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, as revealed by The Guardian.

As technology advances in recent years, one can witness the side effects it has on personal privacy. Now will the invention of smart phones, with a click of a button, it is increasingly easy to share photos, videos or interesting facts about ourselves.  Similarly, it would also be easier for other people to have access to these information. All these are not new, at school, we are taught to protect our own personal information; the government has also issued laws to protect privacy. Yet ironically, it is also the government who is exploiting these online loopholes to act as surveillance on people, intruding into people’s privacy. In America, the NSA was even accused of tapping into Angela Merkel as well as the phones of other world leaders. On the government standpoint, they justified their reasons by arguing that surveillance plays an important role in national security, further condemning the actions of these whistleblowers that by releasing these classified documents, they have jeopardise national security, exposing the nation in danger.

One acknowledges that national security is important in maintaining law and order in a society; yet, one has to question to what extent can surveillance be justified for security. After the documents were surfaced, revealing the mass online surveillance undergone by the GCHQ, the department is under huge legal challenges, facing charges by the European courts. Similarly, the US government’s privacy board has also rebuked Obama’s defence of NSA’s surveillance scheme.

Nowadays, online communication has become the most effective way to communicate. In this digital age, terrorist will also use online communication to message. Intercepting text messages, emails as well as snooping on personal contacts, may help the government identify any threats to the society. Through surveillance, the government is able to deter crimes, especially after the horrifying impact of terrorist attacks such as the 9/11 attack in the USA in 2001, launched by Al Qaeda; while according to MI5 chief, 34 UK terror plots disrupted since 7/7 attacks. Law and order plays an important role in our society, forming the foundation of social prosperity, since violent extremism undermines law and order, the government has every reason to stop it. However, does that mean that the government can be entitled to all data online? Is mass data collection the best way to collect information for surveillance in a democracy?

These online surveillance is clearly against the basic human right to have the freedom of privacy. As the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Article 12 states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” By exploiting the public’s privacy, the relationship between the government and the public is definitely affected, as suggested by the rise of campaigns against the government’s mass collection of data. Every relationship is based on trust, and as a citizen, if one cannot trust one’s own government, then by issuing these policies, the government is not only clearly undermining the law, but also their own credibility and their reputation.

Moreover, has the government considered the effect on the companies? This revelation of surveillance has had a huge impact on industries, as the public has backfired on their “leaky technologies”, as well as their part on this surveillance programme, such as Google, Apple, Facebook or Microsoft. Companies motivated by self interest, would try to protect their own businesses, protecting their own brand interest by standing up against the government to protect their own customers. Due to these reason, mass data collection seems to be undermining the government’s cause for national security, not only because it threatens the relationship of the general public as well as the industry with their own governments, but also because it cannot be legally justified. In a democratic society, we enjoy legal independence, and that the government, if acting against the law, should be condemned.

On a practicality level, the scheme itself has raised doubts as well? Is mass data collection an effective way of maintaining national security? For instance, the NSA had previously been revealed to be monitoring calls of 35 world leaders from contacts given by US officials, however, according to a memo, the surveillance produced ‘little intelligence’. Is this just a waste of time and money? Are their better alternative methods?

Our personal privacy defines every one of us. From dystopia literature, such as George Orwell’s Nighteen Eighty Four, we are presented with a glimpse of a high censored society, with big television screens for surveillance, and cameras in households for government spying. On the streets, posters of “Big Brother is watching you” is stuck row after row on the walls, those haunting eyes spying on you wherever you go. Losing privacy means losing one’s freedom, one’s personal space, literally and spiritually.

Over the years, government surveillance has been glamourised through the media, portraying it as one of the ‘cool’ tactics of the MI6, just like one of those James Bond movies. However, as the use of ‘scooping’ information evolves to be applied not only on specific targets but also on the general public, the issue has become significantly more complicated and the right method to achieve a balance between privacy and national security will not be straightforward. In the new technological age, this doubtlessly will remain as one of the biggest challenge internationally.

(Featured image published on Creative Commons license)