American abolitionist Wendell Phillips said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. The right to live freely with dignity and self-determination has been won and lost repeatedly through history. Monarchs, dictators, the military and democratically elected governments have exploited and even oppressed the citizens of their states for thousands of years. I am only the second generation of India’s citizens born free.
You may not be making bombs, hiding weapons, selling illegal drugs or participating in other unlawful activities in your home, but that doesn’t mean you are willing to let the police enter and search it at any time of night or day without your permission, or a good legal reason and a search warrant.
Let’s hope that this remains true. Let’s hope that the government remains uninterested in us. Let’s hope that we never say or do anything that unsettles the government or any of their friends. But if this means that we need to censor what we say so as not to upset the government and its friends, then giving up our privacy will in effect curtail our right to freedom of speech. So how sure are you that the government will not interfere with you no matter what you say? And to what extent are you willing to give up your fundamental right to free speech in order to avoid interference (in the absence of privacy laws)? These are the questions that face every one of us.
Dissent is not confined to signing public petitions or marching together. Dissent is every time you disagree with something in thought or action. And sometimes that disagreement means taking action that is more personally costly than signing public petitions or expressing your views via social media. Sometimes dissent means that you have to take the government or a business to court for denying you your legal rights. Land disputes when the government acquires land, discrimination at educational institutions, tax and pensions disputes are only a few examples.
There are cases where governments might surveil people but to do so they need to provide good reason and obtain time limited warrants. If governments are surveilling us illegally, without good reason and warrants, then they should be held accountable just like anyone else who breaks the law.
We are increasingly comfortable assuming that we are being monitored on CCTV cameras or that our movements can be traced via the metadata our mobile phone activity. Have you ever thought twice about performing an innocent educational Internet search on a controversial topic (for instance, on how to make explosives) because you fear attracting the attention of the powers that be? Is such self-censorship an effect of surveillance?
Yes, governments will continue to legally employ mass surveillance if we do not tell them that they cannot. But if we say “no” and demand privacy laws that make their activities illegal then that is the beginning of change.