16 Pros and Cons Government Surveillance of Citizens

When we look back at the top-trending stories of the last decade, there are three in particular which stand out when looking at the issue of government surveillance: the death of Trayvon Martin, the rise and fall of Google Glass, and the release of information about the surveillance program called Prism.

Even though these issues may not seem like they are connected at first, each story represents a growing movement toward, or away from, a society that features surveillance.

On one side of the debate, there are people who say that there is too much surveillance already present in our society. We have wearable cameras, mobile computers, and a complete lack of privacy thanks to the amount of video we can produce without anyone realizing they are captured in the data.

The other side of the debate suggests that a society which offers cameras and recorders everywhere will make the world a safer place. When you are on camera committing a crime, then it becomes more.of a challenge to find a successful result in our adversarial system of justice.

Do we want this kind of society? These government surveillance pros and cons go beyond the idea that such an action would provide justice for all at the cost of having zero privacy.

List of the Pros of Government Surveillance

1. It is one of three primary methods of collecting information to keep people safe.
Marc Thiessen from The Washington Post argues that there are only three ways that the government can collect the data that is needed to keep everyone in the country safe. Officials can obtain the information by questioning subjects, infiltrating enemy groups, or using intelligence resources to monitor communications. Even though this effort can track the phone calls, text messages, and emails of millions of people who pose no threat to the country, the argument is that the government surveillance is necessary to detect any association to international terrorism.

2. Surveillance does not create a threat of physical harm on its own.
When the government is performing surveillance over video, communication lines, and Internet resources, then no one is being physically harmed by these activities. You can install trackers on a vehicle that might invade some of your privacy, but it will not be an actual attack on your person. Because the goal of this work is to discover criminal activities, many people believe that the ends justify the means when it comes to keeping everyone safe.

3. The act of surveillance acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals.
Because there is an extensive web of government surveillance in place across the country, there is a natural deterrent in place that stops criminal activity before it can start. People tend to react to safety interventions instead of responding to them, which means their effort at harming someone is stopped before it can start. When those with nefarious intent discover that they have no way to hide from law enforcement, then there are fewer incidents that will eventually come to fruition.

That won’t stop the individuals who take their communication underground, but it can pick up many of the conversations and messages that people exchange when trying to coordinate an attack.

4. It provides a real-time look that provides an accurate account of events.
When we look at the case of Trayvon Martin, who was an unarmed African-American teen that was shot because of his appearance, the most important evidence was the words of the shooter about how the argument between the two began. During the trial, the statements of the eyewitnesses differed, creating uncertainty about the sequence of events. With surveillance in place, it would have been much easier to determine what happened and what level of justice was necessary in that circumstance.

5. Surveillance equipment can be installed almost anywhere.
The modern equipment for government surveillance can go almost anywhere. You can find cameras installed on telephone poles, stop lights, and in the ceilings and exterior of homes and businesses around the world. There are automated license plate readers that can be installed almost anywhere to track driving patterns in the city. Drones can provide real-time surveillance as well.

Then you have the secret programs of the government that can record and analyze data automatically on a mass scale.

6. Government surveillance can occur on a global scale.
Under FISA 702, the U.S. government can collect a massive quantity of detailed, sensitive, and intimate personal information about individuals from all over the world. This advantage includes anyone who has a foreign intelligence interest for the government. That means we can even eavesdrop of foreign ambassadors, gather information about commodities, and then use all of this information to gain more leverage during negotiations.

List of the Cons of Government Surveillance

1. It is impossible to catch everything that happens in society.
When the government is conducting surveillance on a mass scale, then it is impossible for the monitors to pay close attention to everything that happens in society. Even when there are automated systems in place that can alert the authorities to suspicious behavior, conversation keywords, or specific subjects who could be problematic, the number of false positives in the system are always going to be greater than the real problems you’re trying to catch.

The world is full of a variety of conversations that makes monitoring all of them an imprecise effort at best. From the words with double meanings to metaphors that alarm systems unintentionally, there is a lot of data to sort through. That reduces the chances to catch something of concern.

2. Anyone can connect the dots in hindsight.
When we take a look back at the various acts of violence that were captured through government surveillance, it is notable that many of the perpetrators tend to appear on watch lists because of the sheer amount of data collected. When Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was placed on a terrorist watch list before attacking the city during the marathon, it was much easier to see the behavioral patterns and actions that led to the event after the fact than it was to predict what his actions would be.

This issue creates a conundrum for government surveillance. You can always see clearly in retrospect. That means we tend to learn more when we start to connect the dots instead of trying to prevent problems in real time.

3. Surveillance misses lead to even more data being collected on people.
When there is a miss from government surveillance activities, then the reaction tends to be an ever-closer analysis of the information that was collected already. It can also lead the authorities to add even more surveillance to create additional data to sift through in the hopes that the real threats can be isolated from the false ones. This outcome means that there will be more privacy invasions over time as AI and human investigators apply a mass-scrutiny policy to their review efforts.

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore,” said Philip K. Dick. “Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”

4. Government surveillance places innocent people under investigation.
Even if the data collected through government surveillance creates a reasonable suspicion of conduct for the targeted person, there may not be a guarantee that the individual is guilty. When we increase the amount of coverage that’s available in society, then we begin to restrict the rights of those who don’t deserve security interventions.

We have already seen innocent people being placed on watch lists, having their lives placed underneath the microscope of an investigation, and it occurs with ever-fewer pieces of evidence that back up the scope of what is happening. “There are no private lives,” said Dick. “This is a most important aspect of modern life. One of the biggest transformations we have seen in our society is the diminution of the sphere of the private.”

5. The government can use the information for its own benefit.
The information that the government collects through surveillance can provide more data on behaviors and choices that go beyond the need for safety. This effort could help politicians discover unique data points which might predict voter behavior patterns in an election. It shows a person’s travel patterns, the structure of their social networks, and even the products they prefer to purchase at the grocery store.

When the government can use the information from surveillance to influence people to vote or buy in specific ways, then they are changing the very fabric of society. It is an authoritarian way to govern without the presence of a dictator to direct traffic. “Under observation, we act less free,” said Edward Snowden, “which means we effectively are less free.”

6. Government surveillance sweeps gather more bystanders than subjects.
In an analysis of the information gathered through FISA 702, the number of non-targeted communications are 10 times greater than the data that the government actually wants to analyze from a suspect. Even if the goal is to spy on foreigners only, the huge volumes of data cannot help but to bring in information from email exchanges, photographs, social medial sharing, and conversations.

The government classifies the unwanted data as being incidental, but that doesn’t necessarily stop the information from being used in inappropriate ways. Once the data is acquired, other law enforcement agencies can search through the information without the need to obtain a warrant in some situations.

7. There is a persistent threat for insider abuse.
There are already documented cases of agents in the government taking advantage of the data that surveillance programs collect information about others. It is easy to access this data to look at what is going on with a spouse, a mistress, or someone who is a personal enemy. The problem is so prevalent that there are nicknames for these searches.

The insider abuse of this data also applies in the form of attorney-client privilege. Governments are not bound to recognize this confidential nature of this relationship with the data that they collect. That means people could potentially incriminate themselves through surveillance even though they believe that there are protections in place while they prepare for their defense.

8. Individuals can be charged without any knowledge of their participation.
This disadvantage comes to us courtesy of the Upstream program from the NSA. The government scans the information that flows over the internet to see if there is information about foreign intelligence targets. If you mention a political figure to a friend who lives overseas, then that could be enough to trigger a review of your conversation. Discussing their address or contact information could even lead to charges.

This issue could apply if you’re having a conversation with someone who commits a crime without your knowledge. In the United States, government surveillance efforts could collect your whole email account even if there is only one email that triggers the automated review systems.

9. There may not be any oversight over the government surveillance programs.
Under section 702 in the United States, there is no judicial participation in the targeting decisions made by the government. The courts will assess the procedures to determine if they fit into the correct procedures that authorize this monitoring. There is no actual oversight on the targeting decisions that get made. That means any of the information that is collected through incidental gathering can flow to law enforcement even though it was never authorized by a judge.

10. There is an expense to consider with government surveillance.
When you consider all of the technology investments, labor, and analyzing hours that go into a government surveillance program, the amount of money that gets spent each year can total several billion dollars. That money comes through taxpayer support in the name of defense, which means the population effectively pays for the data that the government could potentially use against them under the right set of circumstances.

Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Government Surveillance

There is a time and place for government surveillance where the use is authorized to keep someone safe. Whenever there is a threat to human life that is predictable and eminent, then this technology can help to save lives.

The problem with this issue is that governments tend to collect and keep the information so that it becomes useful in a variety of ways. Instead of keeping people safe, the data transitions to keeping specific people in power.

The pros and cons of government surveillance are essential to review every so often because as time passes, our priorities may change. The Patriot Act in the United States authorized many of the programs that fall into this category in 2001. It may be time to revisit that need.

Author Bio
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.