Especially in the light of recent events in France, Democracy the way me and you know it is in danger. In the last decade, there have been a lot of situations in which people tried to undermine our democratic norms and values, but none of them where as dangerous as the one I will talk about in the following.
Just last year, Edward Snowden discovered the spying activities of not only the USA, but also the involvement of major European countries and their secret-services. While this topic may have been discussed over and over here in Germany, it is still widely unknown as to how exactly governmental spying is damaging us long-term.
I will try to explain it very simple:
Democracy should rely on the formulation of the peoples will into governmental policy as its core motivation, whether through direct participation or representatives. The citizens should be free to express their legitimate concerns with the government to others without being afraid to face major consequences by the criticized or whoever is in power. As long as this is possible, the people have the power to stop their government from acting against their will, committing injustice actions or overstepping its legal boundaries. It is a structure in which the ruled and the rulers balance each other out.
However, spying ruptures this necessary balance and spins it into the favor of whoever uses its power. How does it do this?
Studies have revealed that if a citizen is spied upon, in most cases he changes his behavior into a way which does not make him a target of surveillance. Proven for example here: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140402/18091226783/nearly-half-americans-claim-theyve-changed-their-behavior-due-to-nsa.shtml. While this is a US study, the effects will be the same in Europe once the full extent of the involvement of German agencies is disclosed. If the BND watches over everything you text or say via various technologies, it will prevent people from saying things they would have said before, simply because you do not want to get into any potential lists, even when you know that the stuff you say is not inherently illegal or wrong.
It starts slow and is not directly visible. The famous analogy of the frog that flees when thrown directly into boiling water but gets accustomed to it when you slowly increase the water temperature in small steps, comes to mind.
Same principle in politics:
If we, as the citizens get accustomed to being under surveillance 24/7 through those small steps such as the implementation of new laws , new technologies, we do not notice the way we change our behavior into the way the ruling party of the government could want it to be.
In Germany, we can raise many examples of proposed laws besides the recent NSA-scandal in favor of spying, which thankfully the majority of have yet to be accepted.
One of these is the “Vorratsdatenspeicherung”, which proposed the idea of storing every citizens cell phone data for over 6 months, even if they did not commit any crimes. Another controversial technology that went into law was the secret searching of computers through the state with the use of so called “Bundestrojaner”. In that case, the citizen would not even notice that someone is following his activities on the computer.
The consequences for the citizens are often overlooked. I already mentioned these in the previous part, but let me repeat them once more. A person that KNOWS it is spied on, as we now do in Germany to increasing amount, will not fully use his power as a responsible citizen to offer his unaltered opinion on topics that concern him. It does not mean everyone suddenly stops criticizing things, but some people will!
The spying is not only concentrated on the use of technology like the internet or cell phones. Since many years, any demonstration that took place in Germany was under the strict surveillance of a huge amount of police-forces. Equipped with cameras, every protestor is registered. The use of demonstrations as a form of protest or means to shed light on a topic is hugely important for democracies. Yet, the amount of trouble the protestor has to go through in taking part in them is steadily increasing. The videotaping of attendees stops many first-time protestors from joining, in fear of being filmed in unintended clashes of violence between police and protestors.
It is interesting to note, that in most cases the reasoning of the government trying to implement those dubious procedures relies on the argumentation that they prevent crimes. But in a democracy, every citizen should be free until proven guilty to prevent the government from randomly incarnating people who oppose them and to stop them from silencing criticism. With the use of spying as a tool, the search steers from the search of people who committed crimes to the search of people who MIGHT commit crimes. This agenda is highly dangerous. Trying to find suspicious behavior in peoples actions (http://deutsche-wirtschafts-nachrichten.de/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Innenminister-Friedrichs-Forderungskatalog.pdf) should not be a part law in a democracy.
It further prevents people from behaving the way the originally intended to, if they might be seen as a criminal for their harmless behavior. Even more dangerous, the definition of what is seen as “potentially dangerous” relies on the subjective opinion of the government and the parties in power. It is no set term. While your behavior is harmless for the current government, no one can guarantee you that the future parties in power have the same definition of it. One could think of a future party that sees any critic on states authority as dangerous for the states image. Suddenly, everyone who raises his voice is a potential threat.
These imagined scenarios are not highly unlikely, they happen! Not yet in most European democracies, but they do happen right now in other countries. To prevent it from happening to our state, we need to be aware of it and call spying out for what it is – one of the biggest challenges to democracy.
Photo source: Flick/candida.Performa)