One of the many problems with the debate on mass surveillance is that it is largely driven by emotions, on both sides. Facts are few and far between -- much is secret, for obvious reasons -- which makes objective discussion hard. What is needed is some rigorous research into this area. Surprisingly, it turns out the European Union has been funding just such a project, called "Surveille," a name derived from "Surveillance: Ethical Issues, Legal Limitations, and Efficiency
." Here are the project's aims:
1. To provide a comprehensive survey of the types of surveillance technology deployed in Europe.
2. To assess the benefits and costs of surveillance technology. 'Benefits' refers to the delivery of improved security; 'costs' to the economic costs, negative public perceptions, negative effects on behaviour and infringement of fundamental rights.
3. To identify, elaborate and assess the whole range of legal and ethical issues raised by the use of surveillance technology in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of terrorism and other crime -- including those related to fundamental rights.
4. To communicate continuously the results of the research to a representative sample of stakeholders: European decision-makers, law enforcement professionals, local authorities, and technology developers, and to receive feedback to inform continuing research.
A post on the Just Security site by Professor Martin Scheinin
, the coordinator of the Surveille project, gives a good summary of the latest results of the research
, which have been released as a 50-page paper entitled "Assessing Surveillance in the Context of
Preventing a Terrorist Act
" (pdf). Here's what he writes:
Electronic mass surveillance -- including the mass trawling of both metadata and content by the US National Security Agency -- fails drastically in striking the correct balance between security and privacy that American officials and other proponents of surveillance insist they are maintaining.
We arrived at this conclusion by subjecting a wide-range of surveillance technologies to three separate assessments by three parallel expert teams representing engineers, ethicists, and lawyers. Each team conducted assessments of surveillance technologies, looking at ethical issues they raise; the legal constraints on their use – or those that should exist – on the basis of privacy and other fundamental rights; and, finally, their technical usability and cost-efficiency. This work was fed into and commented upon by two end-user panels, one consisting of law enforcement officials and the other of representatives of cities and municipalities.
The main academic paper is not at all dry; that's because it consists largely of a detailed analysis of real-life surveillance techniques of the kind frequently discussed here on Techdirt. It subjects them to assessments from very different viewpoints -- technical, ethical and legal. Interesting as these are, it's the final conclusions that are most important, because they give the lie to the oft-expressed view that mass surveillance is somehow "justified" by the results it produces:
Various kinds of Internet monitoring techniques are applied side by side with more traditional surveillance techniques. We find most of the Internet monitoring applications both ethically and legally impermissible, assessing them poorly in comparison with traditional, non-technology based surveillance methods. Furthermore, the Internet monitoring techniques compare poorly with the traditional techniques also in terms of usability.
Internet monitoring techniques, with the exception of targeted social networking analysis, represent an unacceptable interference with fundamental rights to privacy and data protection, the deepest ethical risks of chill and damage to trust, intrusion and discrimination, while also violating moral norms of proportionality of methods and consent of the policed. Meanwhile these high moral and legal costs reflect a mostly middling to poor usability benefit, performing worse with regard to cost, efficiency and privacy-by-design than lower tech alternatives. The case for a mass Internet monitoring system is found wanting.
A crucial point made there, so often ignored in debates about mass surveillance, is that low-tech approaches are generally better. In other words, there is no need to trade off fundamental rights for safety by spying on the entire Internet: greater security can be provided by adopting traditional, well-regulated, non-technology-based surveillance methods that do not require everyone to give up their privacy online.
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