Mass surveillance is indiscriminate surveillance.
Mass surveillance uses systems or technologies that collect, analyse, and/or generate data on indefinite or large numbers of people instead of limiting surveillance to individuals about which there is reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Under currently available forms of mass surveillance, governments can capture virtually all aspects of our lives.
Mass surveillance can subject a population or significant component thereof to indiscriminate monitoring, involving a systematic interference with people’s right to privacy and all the rights that privacy enables, including the freedom to express yourself and to protest.
Today, intelligence agencies and law enforcement conduct mass surveillance through a diverse - and increasing - range of means and methods of surveillance. These include the direct mass interception of communications, access to the bulk communications stored by telecoms operators and others, mass hacking, indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology, indiscriminate surveillance of protests using mobile phone trackers, and more.
What is the problem?
Mass surveillance involves the acquisition, processing, generation, analysis, use, retention or storage of information about large numbers of people, without any regard to whether they are suspected of wrongdoing.
In legal terms, the problem with mass surveillance is that it is neither strictly necessary nor proportionate in a democratic society. There are often less invasive alternatives. And even where there may not be, we question whether a democratic society can survive under constant surveillance.
By systematically monitoring people’s lives, mass surveillance enables the potential for unchecked state power and control over individuals. Mass surveillance relies on the assumption that all information could be useful to address a hypothetical threat, which is irreconcilable with the fundamental values and principles of democratic societies that seek to limit the information a state knows about its people in order to moderate its power.
Mass surveillance also obstructs the separation of powers, as the executive branch is able to carry-out its operations without sufficiently stringent oversight from the two other powers - the legislative and the judicial. Mass surveillance powers lack effective independent authorisation, as the ability to surveil is authorised in bulk instead of with regard to each instance of wrongdoing. It creates an environment of threat and suspicion that is incompatible with democratic values and principles, where in the eyes of the state, all individuals become guilty until proven innocent.
Finally, mass surveillance negatively affects other human rights and freedoms, as unjustified interferences with privacy prevent the enjoyment of other rights and they often provide the gateway to the violation of the rest of human right, including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, principle of non discrimination, as well as political participation.
Why it matters?
Mass surveillance enables significant power imbalances and hinders people’s autonomy and dignity.
It creates an environment of suspicion and threat, which can cause people who are not engaged in any wrongdoing to change their behaviour, including the way they act, speak and communicate, in what is commonly described as the chilling effect of mass surveillance. In doing so, it inhibits the legitimate exercise of our rights. It endangers society’s ability to experiment and evolve.
Given the huge amounts of data collected and analysed through mass surveillance, the practice also enables the use of automated decision making: opaque algorithms, the so-called ‘black boxes’, make decisions that are not possible to explain given the complexity and secrecy involved in the implementation of such systems, particularly in a security context. This further weakens the ability to effectively oversee mass surveillance operations.
Besides being a violation of the right to privacy in its essence, no safeguard can guarantee that mass surveillance will never be used for new purposes in the future. For instance, an algorithm that scans vast troves of data looking for dangerous criminals, can and will be used to identify political dissidents in a different context. This fundamental potential for abuse impermissibly alters the power dynamic between a state and its people.
What PI is doing about it?
PI is has brought legal challenges against the disproportionate use of surveillance powers such as the mass interception of communications, mass hacking, and the mass collection communications data from telecommunications companies.
We pushback on corporate exploitation of data in order to reduce the private troves of data available for states to exploit.
We conduct research on new technologies and how they are used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in order to better inform the public debate around whether and if their use is justified.
We push national and international bodies to listen to peoples’ concerns and take steps to protect people’s privacy. We also contribute to the development of international standards.