Is ‘Big Brother’ Style Government Spying a Threat to the Innocent?

There have been a few stories about mass surveillance of the general public by government intelligence agencies in the press already this year. Twitter’s transparency report released in late January showed that the site had a 20% increase in government requests for its users data. Google also released data recently showing an increase in government requests, and it seems likely that this trend was also replicated on Facebook and across the web. These requests came from all over the world, but the bulk were made by the US government.

More recently it was revealed that one of the world’s top international security companies has created a piece of software to analyse billions of entries across social media to extract personal information, including a person’s location, to create profiles on members of the public, to track people, and even to make prediction about people’s future behaviour based on their social media posts. They also said that they had shared this software with the United States government. (see: Secret Big Brother Spy Software Revealed).

It seems that mass surveillance of the general public by government agencies is increasingly becoming the norm, not only in repressive dictatorships which have always sought to spy on their citizens, but also in western democracies.

Although mass surveillance of the general public through systems is certainly controversial, many people accept it as an inevitable part of the modern world. In most countries the use of such techniques is legal, and is becoming more and more prevalent. Some activists complain, but the general public does not seem to be hugely concerned – no large protests or popular compaigns against it, little political debate and seemingly little demand for it.

I would like to try to avoid value judgment on this new software, or any other mass surveillance technology, in this article. There are certainly some strong arguments for their use to prevent serious crimes, and to help locate fugitive criminals. But it seems to me that many people simply do not understand the possible risks enough to make an informed decision about whether or not this kind of thing is necessary.

There is an attitude amongst many that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you do not need to worry”; that only criminals and terrorists have anything to fear from this kind of technology. If a computer analyses some of your posts without you knowing about it, then it hasn’t disturbed your life in any way and no harm has been done – right?

In fact there are risks that such ‘big brother’ style government spying can pose to innocent members of the general public, and this is something that more people should be aware of…


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