Silent persecutions: espionage, surveillance and democracy



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Surveillance has become a mechanism of social control by governments. It has ceased to be an exclusive weapon of authoritarian states and has entered the democratic sphere. Governments deemed to be democratic have used illegal and intrusive surveillance mechanisms such as espionage, generating concern among political opponents and human rights defenders. Currently, the most alarming case at the regional level involves Mexican activists and journalists that were allegedly spied on by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. On February 2017, a report published by The Citizen Lab claimed that Mexican activists researching obesity and sugary drinks consumption had been spied on using Pegasus software produced by the NSO company. In a second investigation, published on June 19th, 2017, The Citizen Lab showed that several messages with links to this software had been sent to the cell phones of journalists and human rights defenders who were investigating the role of the Mexican government in corruption allegations and human rights violations.

This is not an isolated case in Latin America. In 2009, Colombia faced a surveillance scandal in which the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) targeted opposition leaders, journalists, and high court judges who were critical of the Álvaro Uribe Velez government. The DAS used strategies like interception of communications and undercover agents in the judicial system to obtain information about different individuals and groups. Unlike the Mexican case, DAS surveillance methods did not have such a high degree of technological sophistication. For this reason, surveillance in Mexico foretells the danger of new computer technologies whose functioning and effects are still unknown and difficult to identify and regulate.

2013 Washington D.C. rally against mass surveillance. Photo by:  Stephen Melkisethian

2013 Washington D.C. rally against mass surveillance. Photo by: Stephen Melkisethian

The different surveillance forms that exist entail an attack on privacy and are contrary to international standards on human rights protection. Through surveillance practices, governments can obtain personal information that reveals private and sensitive information like details about a person's political ideology, sexual orientation, and religious practices. The cases of Colombia and Mexico show that surveillance aims to monitor individuals and groups that share a common feature: oppose the official power. If the retrieval and use of the data is intended to intimidate and silence those who exercise opposition, the possibilities of guaranteeing political plurality in a State are destroyed.

Surveillance is not only a threat to personal privacy, but a threat to the democratic ideal. It is one of the mechanisms used by governments to silence and intimidate opponents and social groups, including journalists and human rights defenders. This type of intimidation follows the rationale of authoritarian states, which seek to eliminate counter-power through different pressures and threats. Thus, spying on government opponents contributes to the global phenomenon of the closing of civil society spaces. Together with practices like censorship, persecution, and funding restrictions, it becomes part of the repertoire of actions that seek to destabilize certain groups of citizens.

Surveillance also affects the ideal of democracy because it delegitimizes its purposes. One justification for surveillance points at the need to fight against dissident threats that affect security and order. The message that is sent is clear: surveillance is carried out to protect democracy. If this speech is used to legitimize all types of surveillance, including espionage, the effect will be the instrumentalization of democratic purposes to justify the persecution and the indictment of those who denounce government actions and resist as part of the political opposition. As stated by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, surveillance increases the distrust that we have in the state, reduces the credibility of the institutions, and further undermines the liberal conception of the legitimate monopoly of force. This monopoly stops being something necessary for the protection of citizens and begins using intrusive mechanisms to achieve illegitimate purposes: intimidation and stigmatization of certain individuals and social groups.

Surveillance cameras. Photo by:  Jonathan McIntosh

Surveillance cameras. Photo by: Jonathan McIntosh

In order to combat this situation, it is necessary to ensure that judicial systems act as a counterweight to illegitimate surveillance practices. Their independence should be strengthened and they should not be co-opted by governments. On the other hand, government should encourage the creation of external and independent controls and the investigation and punishment of actions directed against opponents and activists in order to undermine the power of intelligence agencies and bodies. Similarly, it is important to strengthen regulatory mechanisms in the countries of origin of companies that sell surveillance programs, increasing control over their operation and customers. From the space of civil society, we must promote processes of awareness and citizen mobilization to resist the governments’ silencing attempts.

However, these are actions in the medium-term that are insufficient to deal with an imminent threat. Human rights defenders, opponents, and activists must adopt self-protection techniques, such as the use of encrypted messaging and video-call systems. In this way, the need to protect ourselves from the actions of a democratic state contradicts the very own principles of democratic government. The use of surveillance as a method of intimidation by formal democracies raises uncomfortable, but necessary questions. If the surveillance discourse seems to be slowly becoming the discourse of persecution, how far has the implementation of surveillance systems in democratic states advanced? Can we continue to call a regime that silences its opponents a "democracy"? Is it possible to conceive democracy without surveillance, or have we reached the point where surveillance is central to what we understand as democracy? Perhaps, what is at stake here is not the rupture of the democratic ideal, but the way in which we define democracy.


* María Ximena Dávila is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Featured photo: Thomas Hawk