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.