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How Unchecked Spying Corrodes Democracy Around the World

Democracy cannot survive the surveillance state.

Almost by definition, clandestine intelligence gathering strains democratic structures and stretches fundamental commitments to due process, transparency and, citizen oversight. But there is something new in the scope and intrusiveness of state surveillance over the last decade or so, which is the product of breathtaking technological advances that have opened entirely new windows into citizens’ activities and private lives.

This exponential expansion of digital electronic surveillance powers has brought widespread anxiety that intelligence gathering may be harming democracy itself, weakening democratic processes and institutions in countries where they are often taken for granted, and impeding or undermining the development of democratic structures in countries that have only recently emerged from more authoritarian systems and abusive surveillance regimes.

A report released this week demonstrates the global negative consequences of unrestrained government surveillance, including crushing dissent, intimidating activists, and undermining the dignity of ordinary citizens.

The report, “Surveillance and Democracy: Chilling Tales from Around the World,” includes comparative evaluations, recommendations, and case studies from 10 countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

In the United States, a Marine Corps veteran tries to board a plane and learns he is on the secret no-fly list, apparently based on innocuous private email communications.

In Israel, state security agents summon peaceful political activists for “warning conversations,” making it clear that their lives and communications are being monitored.

In Russia, a respected human rights advocate learns after repeated detentions that he is listed in the “human rights activists” section of the national surveillance database.

In Canada, a conscientious judge discovers that his country’s intelligence services have been circumventing the law and the courts to spy on Canadian citizens.

In Argentina, the investigation of the country’s worst terrorist attack included illegal surveillance and intelligence activities to cover up the truth, leaving the attack unsolved to this day.

In India, a journalist on the brink of exposing government surveillance of opposition politicians becomes the target of surveillance himself.

In Hungary, the residents of a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Budapest find themselves living under the gaze of cameras that can recognize their faces.

In Ireland, the office of the independent ombudsman charged with overseeing the country’s national police suspects it has become the target of national police surveillance.

In Kenya, a radical imam is gunned down on the street, and investigations point to state-sanctioned death squads operating on the basis of information gathered through transnational intelligence sharing.

In South Africa, the head of an internationally-renowned environmental organization is the subject of a request for “specific security assessments” from a foreign government, and the nation’s largest human rights law clinic learns that it has been subject to unlawful surveillance by the U.K.’s spy agency, Government Communications Headquarters.

Separately, these stories describe concrete instances in which governments have used surveillance to violate civil and human rights. Together, they challenge the notion that digital and more traditional surveillance operations are harmless intrusions and that these tools are being used in democratic countries with adequate restraint and oversight.

These stories show that the lack of oversight, transparency, and control over national intelligence agencies is a worldwide and pervasive problem — one that we need to closely monitor and fight against.

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