Why is mass interception wrong?

I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t instinctively feel that intercepting everyone’s phone calls, emails and messages is wrong. There’s something inescapably “creepy” about it, to use the popular buzzword, but “creepiness” isn’t a very precise moral metric. I’ve been trying to crystallise the underlying ethical issues with mass interception as a policy measure, and found I learned a lot from a Twitter exchange with Dave Mitchell ( @tweek_sf ). I thought I would re-cast those tweets here, as a discussion starter. Please keep the debate going via the Comments section…

Here was our starting point:  “The NSA intercepts all the calls; GCHQ taps all the cables… everyone spies on everyone”.

Is that uncontroversial? Is it just “the whole point of foreign intelligence-gathering”? Or is something fundamentally broken?

One answer is that surveillance, when it becomes mass surveillance, is no longer a matter of national security/defence, as those terms are generally used. If you set out to prevent bad people from doing bad things, you adopt different strategies and techniques from those you adopt if you set out to prevent good people from doing bad things.

When surveillance is speculative instead of selective, it becomes an offensive tool for establishing economic and political leverage, which is disturbing. It also classes everyone as a “target”; in the mass surveillance world, the presumption of innocence does not exist.

Mass surveillance removes “intelligence” from the process of deciding what data to capture, and applies it only to the question of what to do with all the data, once it is captured. That’s not just disturbing, it’s also dangerous.

But, most critically, mass surveillance reduces citizens to a means to an end.

It’s more than 200 years since Kant expressed this idea:

“one can never suppose a right to treat another person merely as a means to an end”.

It is a powerfully resonant principle, and it’s the closest I have come, so far, to defining a solid ethical core for the more vague feeling of “creepiness” mass interception triggers in us. At the heart of it all, no amount of ‘national security’ special pleading can justify mass interception, because it is an affront to human dignity.

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