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The Wall Street Journal reported recently on the protests in Iran, and referred to YouTube footage of one female protestor who was chanting at the police: "Take my picture, film my face -- you can't silence me."1 I hope that is the case. I hope that is the case. I am doubtful, however. I wish we lived in a world where that was true. But it is likely she will be found, and that there will be repercussions: in January, Iranian authorities warned that they were monitoring emails and text messages to find anyone encouraging protests. In the same week, Google announced that hacking attacks from China were targeting the email accounts of human rights advocates.

These cases reminded me of a recent ominous speech by Stavros Lambrinidis, a Vice President of the European Parliament. He was reminding an audience of international privacy experts of life under the Greek military government. He recalled that the government at the time kept track of everyone’s reading habits by monitoring their choices of newspaper. Through this, they were able to know a citizen’s political leanings. This was a stark reminder of the chilling effect of surveillance in Europe’s political history.

These stories remind us of the strong links between censorship and surveillance. A free media is considered an integral component of a new, developing, or established democracy. Free speech is therefore a political right. But today we seem to have forgotten the chilling effect that surveillance plays. Yes, of course, we may point to history to understand this point: the Red Scares, the blacklists and use of informants; the Gestapo techniques; Stalin's spying on friends and competitors and midnight raids; FBI files on politicians and leaders, and Watergate; or the Stasi's network of spies and neighbours. Following from these abuses, safeguards were established to prevent surveillance from corroding our democracies. Privacy was established as a political right.  For instance, U.S. constitutional jurisprudence on the right to privacy emerges from the political right to organise and to petition the government and to espouse your beliefs without having to disclose your name, dating back to a case where the State of Alabama compelled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to disclose its membership list.2

But our minds always go back to those older case studies when we think of the abuses of surveillance powers. When we think of ‘democratic safeguards' we rarely think of privacy, but rather we think of fair justice systems, free and fair elections, transparent government, a free media, amongst other components of an open society. Privacy is considered rarely, except for occasional stories of ‘Big Brother’ government, or as a consumer right.  We have forgotten its importance to the protection of democracy. Now that our societies' infrastructure has dramatically changed through the expanded use of technology, our situation is even more precarious. 




  • 1. 'Iran Protesters Take Broader Aim at Regime', Farnaz Fassihi, Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2009.
  • 2. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958).