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Developing privacy and democratic development

I've always been curious why countries decide to implement censorship technologies on the Internet when instead they can let individuals freely use Facebook, YouTube, access websites of controversial organisations, read articles from banned newspapers; and then they can keep track of everything their citizenry is doing.  Informants and covert surveillance is no longer required when we have vast databases, telecommunications companies, and internet service providers who accumulate information on our political interests, hobbies, loves, hates, and fetishes.

We need to renew our safeguards for privacy as a political right.  As we sell policies and products to countries around the world we have to acknowledge the risk for abuse; and it is not some abstract risk as surveillance appears in all political systems.  My concern is that we are forgetting the political right to privacy as we are indeed spreading our practices around the world.  It is thus surprising to me that the audiences in developing countries find our stories about political surveillance so compelling, yet they are often ignored here at home.

All throughout this article I tried to avoid passing judgement on political surveillance.  Indeed, some surveillance of political actors is useful for identifying conspiracies, illegal activities, policy contradictions, and hidden interests.  The task for regulating these activities is for the media, and the police, with strict controls.  When these methods are used politically, and without oversight, problems emerge. 

We are forgetting the important role that privacy plays in our political systems, and how political surveillance is corrosive to a democracy. I can foresee two outcomes if we continue to deploy political surveillance without reflecting on the consequences. First, we may face social exclusion as people are more easily identified through their political interests. Discrimination may follow as individuals are identified as members of political groups through their donations, linked to their home addresses, their CVs and social networking profiles. The second outcome is political stagnation. At a simple level this would mean that no one would ever run for office as our private lives as toddlers, children, teenagers, and adults will always haunt our individual political aspirations. More worryingly, those in power will retain their position, enabled through surveillance of their opponents and critics.

We have long built constitutional and human rights into our political systems to prevent abuse by the executive. Free speech is one such safeguard. We cannot forget that privacy is another. This is why democracies have traditionally held secret ballots, protected anonymous petitioners, and created safeguards like the 'Wilson doctrine'. We vowed that we would not let surveillance inhibit political autonomy, development and expression. We must repeat this vow, and it must be updated and enhanced to counter modern political surveillance techniques.

The day may soon come that our whole lives and those of political activists and politicians are recorded in various databases; and someone could easily bring together a mere six megabytes of information about the most honest of us and find enough to hang you or me.