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Mass Surveillance; A Necessary Evil?

Something that has become ubiquitous in most, if not all, countries is some form of mass surveillance system to combat the threat of terrorism. Surveillance of social media platforms, phone calls and text messages are deemed a necessary evil to keep people safe. Such intrusions into our privacies lead us to question at what points these infringements become intrusive to our basic civil liberties.

This raises notions of negative and positive freedom and the extent to which people are willing to compromise their civil liberties for freedom. Whilst civil liberties are guaranteed to each citizen by their government, they can also be intruded upon, violated or revoked to suit the circumstances of our time.

Negative and Positive Liberty

Berlin’s ideas of liberty come into play with this line of questioning. According to Isaiah Berlin, there are two concepts of liberty, Positive and Negative. He defines Negative freedom as when a person is not hindered in any way from pursuing or accomplishing their personal goals by other people, the government or powerful institutions.

Negative freedom understands that there is a need for balance to be struck between freedom and the restrictions that must be set in place to ensure the security of people. A certain level of political autonomy must be granted to an individual, and their rights should not be infringed upon. There must be protections in place for how much a person’s freedoms can be breached, whilst acknowledging the need for security and surveillance.

Positive freedom acts as a contrasting actor to this sentiment, with Berlin stating it is essentially the requirement for a person to be their own king. It is an idealised concept of freedom and liberty where the person has free action. Negative freedom appears to agree with the sentiment of surveillance, presenting the notion that society needs to be kept in check for there to be order. The political implications of this are that people will have to sacrifice certain aspects of their freedoms for security.

The Acceptance of Infringements?

Context matters when it comes to civil liberties becoming compromised to combat terrorism. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, America had to accept infringements on their civil liberties in exchange for security. Darren W. Davis of the University of Michigan stated that these infringements included, “more surveillance of their papers and communications, more searches of their belongings, possible detention without a writ of habeas corpus...”.

What these infringements illuminated is that the aspiration for a society in which there is no repeat of such atrocities, there must be an acceptance that civil liberties will be infringed upon to keep people safe. As we know, civil liberties and human rights are what underpin democracy and form its basis, preventing dictatorships from forming, but in the eyes of some, there are necessary compromises that have to be met.

Conflicts in interests, therefore, arise, as we may believe in the right to privacy, but we also believe in ensuring that people are not killed by terrorist attacks. While some accept that these changes or infringements are necessary, context matters as stated previously. Trade-offs therefore can be justified only if there is a potential threat to the welfare of citizens whom the state must protect.

The increase in surveillance tactics as a counter-terrorism measure can be seen to be politically impactful here as it requires people to give up their civil liberties to be protected from potential attacks. It showcases that governments believe the security of people in a time of war is more pertinent than the protection of civil liberties.

Increasing Invasiveness

What is particularly evident is that there are increasing levels of invasive methods of surveillance employed by governments. To justify the use of surveillance, there must be attention paid to the severity of the threat faced, the efficiency of methods the government has undertaken to combat the threat, and the impact that this will have on the civil liberties of the citizens. The increasing levels of surveillance have deep political implications, especially in the United States.

Each person has a right to privacy, as deemed by the constitution, but rising threats of terrorism have given governmental institutions the ability to intrude on such rights under the premonition that it is to prevent potential threats.

The United States vs. Jones case, in which there was an attachment of a locator device to a suspect’s car, without a warrant, raised questions of privacy as secrecy and how this directly contradicted the Fourth Amendment. Justice Sotomayer in her concluding thoughts stated that “I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.”

There are numerous political implications surrounding the increasing surveillance to combat terrorism. There has to be an understanding of civil liberties and what people are entitled to, to better understand the dangers of surveillance. It has the ability to intrude on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The notions of positive and negative liberty come into play, with negative freedom acknowledging the need for concessions for society to be made safer.


These fears regarding surveillance and security are not limited to the United States, they are a global issue that governments are attempting to rectify. There is a multitude of political implications, ranging from violations of civil liberties to breaches of ethical codes and confidentiality governments which are deeply damaging to democratic societies.


Edited by Kavya Vengkateshwaran

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