“It’s for your security”: how many times have we heard this refrain in recent years? Whether used to justify blunt refusals, shattered expectations, or reduced mobility, it’s been part of our lives since the beginning of the War on Terror.
It’s also for “our security”, evidently for American citizens above all, that the US National Security Agency has spied on the communications and online activity of millions of people at home and abroad, with the complicity of its British counterpart the GCHQ, as revealed by The Washington Post and The Guardian.
The problem is that secrecy shrouds everything about these activities, from the courts that authorise them to the public officials who see them through. However, in functional democracies, infringements on individual liberties are only permissable with the clearest possible consent of citizens, who must in turn be able to monitor the activities of their representative bodies. But even if a majority of Americans actually believe that renouncing their private lives is an acceptable price to pay to ensure their security, they are at odds with their neighbours across the ocean. Not only are Europeans the main targets of PRISM, but they have no democratic control over the institutions that govern it, and it goes without saying they have not been asked for their consent.
The risks of abuse are too great to rely on the good intentions of the “Big Brothers” on the other side of the Atlantic and the English Channel. The terrorist threat must not become the permanent war happening in the backdrop of George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, used forever to justify secretive planetary surveillance. It would be too easy for authorities to give into the temptation to use such a mechanism for other means, for example corporate espionage.
This is why the European Union must revise its data protection rules as soon as possible and reform the applicable legislation. Such legislation, proposed in 2012, is still being negotiated by the 27 member states, themselves hard up to find the right balance between security and freedom.
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