January 2015
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Surveillance: NOT a first world problem

I have been to a few meetings and conferences now where people have claimed that the global surveillance state is a First World problem. After all the majority of the people in many developing countries are way to worried about water, food, shelter or other basic needs to worry about something as abstract as government surveillance. The latter is true, of course. But what poor people do not worry about may still be an important factor in maintaining a system that increasingly serves the few and ignores the needs of the many, and that may eventually make the planet uninhabitable for all of us.

Surveillance is a status-quo enabler. It strongly favours those with the money and other resources to listen to everyone else. The global surveillance infrastructure is a huge part of what enables the rich countries to do as they please and get away with it. I happened to be at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen, at the end of which many people realised our governments were simply not going to deal with climate change in any useful timeframe. I remember talking to the person from the environmental ministry in Bangladesh over lunch and not being hungry anymore.

The story of the US government efforts to listen to everyone at the Copenhagen meeting – so they could be even better at doing nothing about climate change - makes me want to puke.

That could be why U.S. negotiators took the positions they did going into the conference, a Danish official told Information. “They simply sat back, just as we had feared they would if they knew about our document,” the official said. “They made no constructive statements. Obviously, if they had known about our plans since the fall of 2009, it was in their interest to simply wait for our draft proposal to be brought to the table at the summit.”

Members of the Danish delegation indicated in interviews with Information that they thought the American and Chinese negotiators seemed “peculiarly well-informed” about discussions that had taken place behind closed doors. “Particularly the Americans,” said one official. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew.”


In a world that will need to change the status quo really quickly, surveillance of the poorest by the richest threatens us all.

24 comments to Surveillance: NOT a first world problem

  • remco

    What can we do to stop it?

  • moro

    @remco: nothing. we have no power.
    the only thing we can do is oppose this system that damages us, and show others how they are damaged by it (so why they should oppose it too).
    all we got to loose are our shackles, and we got a world to win.

  • Richard

    No, it is not the first world problem. But what precedes to justify the cause is extremely destructive.

  • Dieter Funker

    @remco: it’s too late meanwhile. there are not enough people who are fully aware of the situation. you would need the majority of the middle class to change things. unfortunately the most western societies(especially germany as a key player in europe) have overaged populations with the fear of descending in social hierarchies. the last thing they want is any chaos, disorder or even change in any way. this imho is the status quo keeping factor more than NSA surveillance. so politicians will focus in satisfying their needs, as you can see in germany right now after the last elections.
    we have to wait for the next serious global event(like a war or another deep impact event) and be prepared for a new beginning. hopefully there will be enough people left to remind the others what went wrong…

  • JanS

    The only thing that is left to us to exercise any kind of “democracy” is the way we consume things. I.e., stop buying more cheap shit than you need; buy used goods if you can; spend you time with friends, not gadgets; do not buy the newest car or smartphone etc.

  • tilt

    World’s most brutal and retarded dictatorships rely on surveillance as total as possible to control the population. Surveillance it is one of the key enablers of a totalitary dictatorship that stands accountable to nobody for anything (but everyone stands totally accountable for everything towards the dictatoric authority). To call that a “first world problem” denies all global current and historic reality.

  • Toby Sterling

    Hi Rop. It’s been a while, you once helped me with a story on electronic voting machines. I’m wondering if you’re willing to talk to the media again …
    I’m looking for help on a story on the NSA. Without going into all the details, what I need is someone to explain to me what’s (probably) technically possible for them to do as far as identifying nationality on the basis of information given by Google/MSFT/Facebook/Twitter in combination with IP addresses; if you’re not the right person maybe you can tell me who he/she is. I can be reached at the email listed above or lbsterling apenstaartje gmail dot com, pls let me know there if you need to communicate via a more private channel.

  • rop

    Toby: Well now that you’ve asked in a public forum I’ll answer in one also: with data from Facebook and/or Google combined with an IP-address, I would say nationality as well as exact identity can be ascertained in nearly 100% of cases. (Maybe after a smallish amount of digging for a small minority.) Twitter has notably less data (but still enough to identify most users because IP is enough in many cases. Microsoft is somewhere in between, I think. All just based on my non-peer-reviewed gut feeling.

  • Rolf

    Maybe good to note that in the “development cooperation sector”, global surveillance is not seen as a “First World” problem. A lot still needs to happen there too (awareness and action), but see for instance Aiding Surveillance, by Privacy Int’l

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