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Saturday, 13 December 2008

Towards a police State

On the 4 December T. Hammarberg, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, presented the Council of Europe with a report on surveillance and Human Rights in the Europe post 9/11. Entitled “Protecting the Right to Privacy in the Fight Against Terrorism,” the report takes very important (even if already obvious for many of us) conclusions on the dangers of the current tactics employed to fight terrorism:

We are rapidly becoming a ‘Surveillance Society.’ This is partly the result of general technical and societal developments, but these trends are strongly reinforced by measures taken in the fight against terrorism.

In the context of the fight against terrorism, this means individuals are at the risk of being targeted for being suspected ‘extremists’ or for being suspected of being ‘opposed to our constitutional legal order,’ even if they have not (yet) committed any criminal (let alone terrorist) offence.

‘Targets’ of this kind are moreover increasingly selected through computer ‘profiles.’ Even if some may be caught, there will always be relatively large number of ‘false negatives’ - real terrorists who are not identified as such, and unacceptably high numbers of ‘false positives’: large numbers of innocent people who are subjected to surveillance, harassment, discrimination, arrest - or worse. Freedom is being given up without gaining security.


In the process, all of us are increasingly placed under general, mass surveillance, with date being captured on all our activities, on-line or in the ‘real’ world. Such general surveillance raises serious democratic problems which are not answered by the repeated assertion that "those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear."

Now as I said before, this conclusions bring no news to those of us who have since the beginning been concerned with the terrifying dissemination of surveillance systems through the fabric of our everyday lives. Still the point that I think its worth stressing in the conclusions of this report is the fact that the fight against terrorism is one of a prophylactic kind: the policing institutions surveil our lives in order to identify individuals that match a certain profile for then to punish them for a crime they will (most certainly) commit. (Any reminiscences of Minority Report in here are obviously not mere coincidence.) The tactics then is then to avoid the crime instead of punishing the criminal; that is, to surveil and control the population instead of disciplining the bad guys by sending them to prison. Very good idea was it not for the fact that the psycho-social development of individuals is not an exact science and nothing assures us that a certain individual will become a criminal just because he or she fits in a certain criminal profile - hence what Hammarberg calls the ‘false positives.’

This move away from discipline to control brings with it strong and real dangers not only for the 'false positives' like Jean Charles de Menezes, the brazilian electrician shot in the head 7 times by the police in the aftermath of the London bombings, but for the general population in terms of the small but substantial changes happening around us - DNA records, ID cards, CCTV systems, and the possibility of having someone monitoring our lives without us knowing simply because we might look like this or that.

Now what made us, heirs of the western democratic values, agree with this is something I’ve been trying to understand for quite a long time now. Citizens of free countries, inhabitants of multiethnic post-colonial cities, we have suddenly accepted to give away our rights - rights to privacy, to anonymity, to movement, to rebellion - in the name of a supposedly boosted sense of security. But the question is: do we really feel safe(r) now? Was it worth it? And, most importantly, will we regret it?

What do you guys think about this?

Council of Europe: Commissioner for Human Rights, Protecting the Right to Privacy in the Fight against Terrorism, 4 December 2008. CommDH/IssuePaper(2008)3. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at:  [accessed 13 December 2008]

#1 © Isabel Pina Ferreira
#2 © Alexandra Ferreira

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