Impact of electronic surveillance

Published : 23 Nov 2021 09:39 PM
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Since the beginning of this year our authorities have been facing criticism over electronic surveillance related to individuals, institutions and also the media. There has been mention that this has been due to lack of democracy and rights that should normally be available for our citizens. Many social analysts from the civil society have in this context also drawn attention to British novelist George Orwell’s “1984” published in 1949, with the prophecy of a future with the underlying theme: “Big Brother is Watching You”.    

It would be fitting to ascertain what is happening in this regard in most countries of the world- in the United States, in Western Europe, several countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. One has to draw attention to these aspects for the benefit of the critics in Bangladesh.

Several observations have emerged as to how all movements are being monitored—by surveillance cameras planted in New York City streets, expressways, public parks, subways, shopping malls, and parking lots– in violation of personal privacy and civil rights. It has also come to light that (according to an article published in the New York Times recently), the New York Police Department (NYPD) has continued its mass surveillance– which began following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 (9/11) on the World Trade Centre in New York city– uninterruptedly. Consequently,  New Yorkers carrying on their daily activities routinely encounter post-9/11 digital surveillance tools like facial recognition software, license plate readers or mobile X-ray vans that can see through car doors. Apparently, according to demonstrators, surveillance drones hover above mass demonstrations and protesters are sometimes subsequently questioned by antiterrorism officers after their marches.

The New York City media has also indicated that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division now uses anti terror tactics to fight gang violence and street crime in that City. To facilitate this process, the Police Department has invested in expanding its surveillance capabilities. The department’s budget for intelligence and counterterrorism has more than quadrupled, spending more than $3 billion since 2006, and more through funding streams that are difficult to quantify, including federal grants and the secretive Police Foundation, a nonprofit that funnels money and equipment to the department from benefactors and donors. Current and former police officials have asserted that the tools have been effective in thwarting dozens of would-be attacks.

Donna Lieberman, the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who had been associated with police surveillance in the 1990s; has now claimed that the effort to map out every camera being used by the police is no longer possible as “there were too many cameras to count.”

However, the United States does not appear to be alone in their undertaking of such activity to ensure public safety. This has become a world-wide phenomenon. On 21 October this year a new study was released by the African Digital Rights Network regarding mass surveillance that is currently being carried out by governments in six countries in Africa– Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Sudan– with existing laws failing to protect the ostensible legal rights of citizens. The study, described as the first systematic comparison of surveillance laws in Africa, has come at a time of rising concerns of digital “surveillance creep” as technologies have become more sophisticated and more intrusive in our day-to-day lives. The study has also claimed that “many governments have expanded their powers for surveillance and access to personal data during Covid-19” on social health grounds.

Dr Tony Roberts, Research Fellow in this institution, and co-author of the report has also indicated that while States do need surveillance powers to prevent terrorist atrocities, their efforts need to be consistent with human rights. The connotation in this view is that such powers must only be narrowly-targeted on potential terrorist activity, a serious crime but used when strictly necessary, proportionate to need. This view has been based on the assumption that citizens need to be more aware of their privacy rights and of the surveillance activities undertaken by their governments.

Legislation, it has been suggested, can usefully define checks and balances to protect citizens’ rights and provide transparency. He has also noted that “civil society needs the capacity to monitor surveillance practice and hold government accountable to the law.” In this context he has agreed that state surveillance of citizens is also on the rise in Western Europe. In practical terms this should be possible under the Right to Information process.

This analyst has also pointed out that digital technologies have made it much easier and cheaper for States to surveil citizens. Previously, it used to take a whole team of people to stake out a target, tap physical phone lines, record, transcribe and analyze the data for a single target. Now, because of advances made in digital technology and of the internet, mobile communications have become more automated using artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms. This is true and is being practiced -all over the world in general and the UK and the USA in particular- with regard to social media surveillance by political parties.

Dr Tony Roberts in this regard has also drawn attention to “the Snowden revelations which showed how governments in Western Europe and the US systematically conduct mass surveillance on citizens. The Pegasus spyware case has also shown how States are using malware to spy on the French President, opposition leaders, judges, and journalists.”

Meanwhile, the new report also identifies Egypt and Sudan as countries where citizens’ rights to privacy are least protected. This apparently is due to a combination of weak legal protections, weak civil society to hold the state to account and increased state or government investment in surveillance technologies. In contrast, despite the government in South Africa violating privacy law, that country’s strong civil society, independent court and media have successfully been able to persuade the government to improve its surveillance law and practices.

Overall, the research carried out by the African Digital Rights Network and the IDS has   identified six factors that indicate that the existing surveillance law in- Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Sudan-  is failing to protect the privacy rights of citizens in each of the six countries due to:  (a) the introduction of new laws that expand state surveillance powers; (b) a lack of legal precision and privacy safeguards in surveillance law; (c) the increased supply of new surveillance technologies that enable illegitimate surveillance; (d) state agencies regularly conducting surveillance outside of what is permitted in law; (e) current impunity for those committing illegitimate acts of surveillance and (f) weak civil society unable to hold the state fully accountable in law. One has to in this regard wonder why the IDS have not been able to underline this view with regard to the many Western European States and the USA.

Other analysts have however raised another point of discrimination that needs to be taken into account. Evidence suggests that Black neighborhoods are more heavily surveilled than White neighborhoods in sections of some cities (other than Los Angeles) in the USA. This problem has apparently become worse because facial recognition technology is now combined with the CCTV camera and linked to identity databases to conduct pervasive invasive surveillance.

Despite all the above factors one has to remember that, during the current scenario, it is the duty of the State to provide socio-economic- health security to the citizens. This also requires the relevant authorities to enforce careful scrutiny of some sectors to protect national security.

Every country has sections of their population who are dependent on more affluent members of their neighborhood for their livelihood and shelter. Consequently, they might become subject and vulnerable to misuse of practices. We have seen how communal violence has recently been undertaken within this paradigm. There have also been several undesirable incidents with regard to the Rohingya population who have been given sanctuary in Bangladesh.

All such incidents underline the need for surveillance to maintain stability. If these steps are not undertaken with care then it will affect our education sector and also our children. This will affect our process of socio-economic development and that is unacceptable. We have to slowly emerge from our poverty dimensions, overcome the challenges created because of climate vulnerability and also be able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. We have to gradually move upwards and become not only a Middle Income country but also a Developed nation. There is no other option.

In addition within our governance framework there has to be an impartial, legal and non-political matrix that will assist in successfully implementing this process. There also has to be transparency with regard to decision making and subsequent accountability.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.