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Textproduktion: Comment "Hassan: A case study"


Electronic / digital surveillance? Discuss the tension between the protection of individual rights and the discovery of extremist tendencies or activities.


The global debate that has shaped the first decade of the 21st century is how far individual rights like privacy of correspondence may be invaded in order to prevent terrorist acts and to discover extremist tendencies. After the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorist acts in Europe and other parts of the world, particularly the USA’s and Europe’s need for security have changed radically. Uncovering terrorist plots before the plans are put into action has been given the highest priority. This, however, means a close-knit surveillance of people’s phone calls, email correspondences and Facebook accounts. The question is if, in times of global terror, we must accept that our private lives are no longer that private and how far we are prepared to go for our security.  

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, a majority of people welcomed the strict security measures enforced by US and European security agencies and even accepted the tighter surveillance of private telephones and emails in order to uncover terrorist activities in time to prevent attacks. The fact that such a surveillance should indeed yield successful results and lead to the arrest of potential terrorists, as it was the case with the so called Sauerland cell in Germany in 2007, felt comforting to many citizens. Here, the listening in on private telephone conversations between the terrorists had got US intelligence services on their tracks. In the case of the London bomb attack on 7th July 2005 and the failed second attempt two weeks later, CCTV footage from various train and tube stations helped to quickly identify the suicide bombers.

As positive as such successful surveillance operations against extremists may be, they also involve a certain danger of creating a transparent citizen who no longer has any privacy; at least not in the online world. When the Guardian and the Washington Post first published stories about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) clandestine electronic data mining operation PRISM in 2013 based on information leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, this revelation about the extent of the US’s data-collection efforts sent shock waves around the world. Particularly in Germany emotions ran high. Digital rights groups and anti-PRISM protesters were especially outraged about the way in which the USA had spied on the citizens of allied countries gathering Internet user data on a huge scale. This in the eyes of civil liberties activists was one leap too far and represented a massive disregard of privacy rights.

All in all, the successes and also the scandals attached to digital surveillance have shown how difficult it is to draw the line between a useful and necessary defence against extremist activities and intrusive spying. The fact that in many cases national economic interests are at stake will not make the discussion about the limits of data-collection easier in the future. We need to be aware that the price we pay for our national security may one day be our privacy.   

(495 words)

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