The Soft Implications of Government Surveillance by Alexander McKerrow

An invasion of privacy can occur with relative ease. The recklessness of a spurned lover logging into their ex-partner’s Facebook. The decision by a mother to check her son’s internet history. The indiscretion of an individual divulging their best friend’s secrets to another.

In themselves, these acts do not seem particularly dangerous, which is why they are so commonplace. Acts which invade privacy are easily justifiable to the individual. A peculiar, innate curiosity drives our desire to infringe other people’s privacy on a personal level. The human mind has a propensity to wonder and can be perpetually intrigued by others, which is why privacy can be infringed without reason. To many, mere intrigue is sufficient. It is this which pushes forth our desire for knowledge, even when this involves harming the rights of others. This is perhaps a byproduct of human nature; the Faustian desire to overreach.

It is the revulsion individuals feel when their privacy is invaded which illuminates the distress felt by many at the Snowden revelations. The thought that someone knows one’s most intimate secrets is met with a pang. That pang is a physical, overpowering reaction to the notion that one’s vulnerabilities are laid bare. When this happens on a personal level, solace can be found in the relatively small class of individuals aware of such vulnerability. However, on an institutional or governmental level, all forms of safety are ripped down. Man finds himself in a situation where his eccentricities can be judged by individuals many miles from him. No safety exists when such acts occur, as the bodies which seek to entrench individual liberty do precisely the opposite.

The idea that information is only gained to protect one’s individual liberty proves hard to swallow when the very forces at play subjugate one’s liberty. Whilst it may seem a blissful idea that government forces seek to protect the individual through surveillance, and indeed limited surveillance on truly suspect individuals may achieve that goal, this offers no consolation. The individual is still placed in a situation whereby those who seek to protect them actually harm them.

From this, one is inclined to paraphrase T. S. Eliot. The world ends not with a bang, but a whimper. The slow erosion of personal liberty curtails the individual, limits expression and engenders a culture of fear. It is this culture which can emerge incrementally, as generation after generation becomes attuned to the idea that their own thoughts are, well, not their own. Our liberty therefore does not then end with a bang, but a slow, pained whimper.


Synopsis: My essay responds to the theme through considering the soft implications of government surveillance. By assessing how we abhor personal invasions to privacy, our understandings of distaste towards institutional violations of privacy can be better understood.

Bio: I’m a second year student interested in how divisive political issues can be seen in a social and culture context. @AJMcKerrow



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