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Human nature – why surveillance is a way of life

A lot gets said about the Edward Snowden leaks, and the implications that they bring with them; after all, our privacy is important, and we don’t want government spy agencies snooping into our lives without any controls, without scrutiny.


What rarely gets mentioned, however, is that the causes of these spy programs are a direct result of our most human patterns of behavior…  the emotions and psychological traits that most humans succumb to on a personal level, which, like it or not, get magnified and exaggerated when played out on bigger fields.

Humans are a secretive lot, and they tell lies to protect each other from hurt –  perhaps if they know information about a loved one’s spouse that could lead to divorce, or maybe when they know something about a friend’s illegal lifestyle habits, that if mentioned, could get them into trouble with the law. These are what we call ‘white lies’ – or in other words the lies that for some personal reason we feel are benign or even ‘good’. These important secrets are often ‘taken to the grave’, would you agree?

It therefore strikes me as fairly amusing that when the director of the NSA, for instance, tells a lie to protect his organization’s actions (in order to keep a secret project going that he feels has value in protecting the nation’s citizens), everyone is in uproar, and is hugely surprised about it!  I for one am not surprised.  If we ordinary people can be paranoid about our neighbors, work colleagues or spouses, of course government’s are going to be paranoid about other countries… when the intelligence agencies fail to stop a terrorist attack, they are at fault, but when they spy on everyone to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again, they are also at fault. Admittedly quite a difficult position to be in.

Of course, if humans like to lie, keep secrets, boast, gossip about one another etc. etc., if humans know that we all have a potential to exhibit these failings and flaws, then it stands to reason that humans are going to be pretty paranoid creatures.

So what evidence is there that individual humans are just as bad as groups of humans, or organizations when it comes to surveillance abuse?

Back in August of 2013 a number of NSA staff members were involved in the LOVEINT scandal, in which one of of them spied on his ex-girlfriend on his first day at work.  Although the scandal got a lot of press, and sparked a huge amount of twitter jokes, the people in question never really got much in the way of punishment or repercussions. In fact, Sen. Chuck Grassley just this week sent a letter to the Department of Justice following up on his 2013 request for information to be made public about how the twelve known cases of individual and personal NSA surveillance abuse, were reprimanded.  This is a request that has still not been answered.

An internal NSA audit has revealed that the staff member who spied on his first day was punished by getting  ‘a reduction in grade, 45 days restriction, 45 days of extra duty, and half pay for two months.’ Hardly a huge punishment for such a gross abuse of trust and invasion of an innocent’s privacy.

Where else do we see personal rather than organizational abuse of surveillance?

According to an article that came out in The Independent just a month ago,  a high street retailer in Britain is selling a device on their web site (for just £50)  that is capable of spying on a loved one’s phone. Advertised as the perfect way to catch a ‘cheating wife or girlfriend’ the device can track someone using GPS – giving information about that person at all times, as well as covert access to key strokes, texts, pictures and emails – everything someone needs to become a mini-NSA in their own right! In the article the Independent calls the use of the spy device of ‘epidemic proportions’ and women’s aid  comment that over 40% of cases of abuse against women now come in digital form.  A stark reminder of the abuse that it is possible to be subjected to,  at the hands of technology enabled people.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when it comes to surveillance technology. Yes we should all go and watch CITIZENFOUR, and yes we should all be aware of how these intelligence organizations are abusing our privacy, but don’t forget that as technology gets better, you may be at risk from people closer to you, and that those people might have a more serious and personal desire to hold your information – your digital footprint –  and as my mom always used to tell me, ‘the majority of victims know their killer’.

At the grass roots level of society we have an impact on how it works at the top, and us at the bottom of the pyramid need to be the change that we want to see in the world.  Instead of being happy with things as they are, we must strive for improvement and fight for a better world for our children. So if you care deeply about your family’ safety, consider carefully how these technologies might impact your life, be vocal in your concerns, and keep yourself informed about new technological developments.


Ray Walsh I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR and I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood and love to listen to trap music.

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