Surveillance states are a characteristic of dictatorships. The one-party, or one person, state typically restricts dissenting opinions that clash with the monopolistic status quo. The controversy involving the NSA brings to mind other countries methods of spying on their citizens. Even though the NSA is searching for possible terrorists, they are data mining hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens in their pursuit for national security. The United States is not the only surveillance state in the world; there are subtle differences between what the government utilizes their citizens' data for.
Below is a list of some of the countries that spy on their people. They range from our allies to enemies and in-between. The result is an international spying problem with leaks, crackdowns, covert information sharing, and hacking taking place. At least the United States are searching for external threats and not behaving like an oppressive dictatorship.
How countries like China and Iran "observe" their media and crack down on opposing views would not be tolerated in the United States. The United States does not send people to jail just because they disagree with their government. The Constitution sees to that. However, this is a slippery slope that could lead to further extremes years from now if this continues without change.
People cannot simply stop using their smart phones or cease to surf the Internet. A more restrictive surveillance strategy, such as Senator Rand Paul may advocate, would be viewed as profiling, but a wider net would appear oppressive, regardless of how subtle the end result is. This collection of metadata is knowledge and knowledge is power. Power can corrupt.
The fact that these matters involve national security, specifics are hard to come by. Although the general theme has been that the intelligence gathering has not broken any laws. Opponents would likely claim that even though no laws were broken, the legal parameters could be molded to ensure that nothing illegal takes place, raising ethical arguments.
Does the United States really wish to be compared to these types of nations?
Bashar Al-Assad has assured his reign for so many years by keeping a keen on the Syrian people. The Syrian regime is not only attacking rebels through standard military warfare, they have a clear edge in cyber warfare as well. A Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, Journalists Without Borders) released a report in March about the proliferation of cyber surveillance.
Syria’s estimated five million internet users are being watched and censored by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment and the Syrian Computer Society. It is not simply journalists who are being targeting for their oppositional opinions, but 18 internet users were jailed as well.
China is aiding Iran censor and monitor their internet users. Well before Snowden told the world about PRISM, the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) purchased specific networking equipment from Chinese firm, ZTE with the purpose of increasing their monitoring capabilities. Landlines and internet traffic operate through TCI and the data is accessed by Iran’s Supreme Council on Cyberspace.
The Iranian government may not have anything like PRISM yet, but Google has accused the government of a phishing-scheme. The purpose was likely to gather intelligence prior to the presidential elections. This is nothing new. Journalists have been easy targets for their access to reach multitudes of people.
Prior to the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Iranian-born Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari was detained as a spy and sent to Evin Prison for over 100 days. Among the evidence against him was an interview Bahari gave with Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. In the satirical scene, The Daily Shows’ “correspondent” Jason Jones made it seem like he was a spy and the interview was supposed to be clandestine. The point behind the satire was to show not all Iranians are anti-American.
Iran is also attempting to improve their own security from outside sources as they have been targeted by hackers attempting to derail their nuclear research. By strengthening their defenses, they are also engaging in a technology war against their opponents. Each side attempts to improve upon previous successes and failures, making the threat that much harder to stop.
When it comes to technology, China is the United States’ top rival. It comes as little surprise that China was one of the targets for the NSA. The Chinese government has hacking specialists who make hacking other governments sound easy. When a nation has that type of reputation, one could imagine how easy it will be to hack their own citizens.
A government as restrictive as Communist China already has a reputation for cracking down on political dissidents. Ironically, Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower behind the NSA leaks, called the United States hypocrites for also targeting civilians, citizens or not.
Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and Chinese political critic Ai Weiwei can attest to how the Chinese government reacts to those with differing opinions from the one-party government. Weiwei, the world renowned artist who was behind the Beijing National Stadium, the centerpiece of the 2008 Olympic Games, argued that information gathering on this scale could be corruptive and become a controlling agent:
“But we have never exposed ourselves in this way before, and it makes us vulnerable if anyone chooses to use it against us. Any information or communication could put young people under the surveillance of the state. Very often, when oppressive states arrest people, they have that information in their hands. It can be used as a way of controlling you, to tell you: we know exactly what you're thinking or doing. It can drive people to madness.”
The UK is not a dictatorship, but there is a problem with how the NSA shares their information with our primary European ally. When U.S. congressional representatives are having difficulty viewing the collected data from the PRISM program, the United Kingdom has been able to access it since as early as June 2010.
The UK’s version of the NSA, GCHQ, has been able to view data from major international tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft through the PRISM program. This international collaboration has resulted in apparently customizable form for the UK spy agency, resulting in 197 intelligence reports in 2012 alone.
These companies are based in the United State and out of England’s jurisdiction. Previously, the normal routine GCHQ would need to follow if they wanted to view information from one of these companies they would make the request to the Department of Justice. PRISM has allowed for an easier, back door method of this sort of data gathering.
The biggest difference between the United States and these other countries is that there are constitutional checks and balance in place. True, FISA courts have granted a judicial stamp, albeit a rubber stamp, there is such a thing as the Supreme Court of the United States where this may ultimately lead to. Can you imagine China holding a trial about spying on its citizens in open court?
A version of this article has been posted on Policymic