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Does the government have the right to monitor private emails?



A defining element of the kinds of abusive, totalitarian regimes seen in our lifetimes has been all-pervasive surveillance – be it in East Germany, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, or Qadafi’s Libya – including the routine steaming open of people’s letters, tapping phone calls, or sifting through their emails.

But Western governments have passed law after law, ranging from the UK’s new bid to monitor all our online usage, to the US Patriot Act, the US’s impending Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, and the EU’s Data Retention Directive, all supposedly protecting us from terrorism and crime in the age of global communications, but really demolishing our rights to privacy and to live free of this blanket, state-directed paranoia in which people’s lives are shut down on suspicion alone. These are freedoms that previous generations paid mightily to protect, but which governments are now casually destroying.

Sifting through private emails and phone calls only obscures the genuine threats and throws up false leads, while laws allowing such practices to become warped by function creep. The UK’s Regulation of Investigative Powers Act was brought in to guard against terrorism and serious crime, but is mostly used to monitor fly-tipping or to see whose children live in a school’s catchment area.

If we lose the right to privacy and allow all-pervasive monitoring then people will fear becoming a target for greater state scrutiny and curtail their own political, creative and social engagement: all while the state remains unaccountable and democracy silently dies.

This lack of transparency leads to corruption – the state becomes the one with something to hide – while regimes increasingly use surveillance to crush the growing dissent. Ultimately, the seeds of oppression reap revolution – see the Communist Bloc, the Arab Spring, even News Corp – but only after countless innocent lives have been lost or compromised and blood has been spilled on the streets.


Rather than dramatizing the cumulative effect of privacy and surveillance failures – which still do not amount to the level of repression exercised by regimes in East Germany or Syria – experts should be much more vocal on the lack of effect of these monitoring efforts and on the real reasons why they are used.

First of all, we cannot make a case for the rise of a bloodstained Big Brother state (yet) in Western democracies. Yes, there have been numerous insults, wrongdoings and police failures in Britain, France or other European countries, let alone in the US. But these do not compare to intentional killings by Syrian secret police, or to the psychological warfare communist countries once waged against their populations.

Second, the general views about repressive surveillance will be swept away with one single terrorist attack, or even thwarted attack.

Third, leaving security out of the equation exposes a black hole of uncertainty and fear that cannot be filled by human rights or freedom principles alone, however noble they may be. It just does not work that way in populist politics any more.

Being too dependent on monitoring is the real problem. In a world of economic cutbacks, the danger of over-reliance on privatized and computerized security looms large. Israeli airports have exchanged detectors for highly trained, schooled and professional human officers – because they produce better results.

If experts are not able to educate and inform the public about the real costs of security, the side-effects of monitoring and the lack of real effects in terms of preventing attacks, we will keep collecting haystacks with small chances of actually finding the needle. Thus, rather than presenting monitoring as either a catch-all solution or an Orwellian nightmare, let’s present it as it is: at best a second-tier, expensive and ambivalent assistance to real-life security personnel that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails in the struggle against terrorism and crime.


Citizens don’t have to justify their need for privacy; the state has to justify its need to subject everybody to wholesale suspicion. No-one would accept having a police officer or bureaucrat sit alongside as they wrote an email or text, so why should they endure such surveillance if it’s done remotely by unknown persons for reasons unknown?

Nor are people so stupid or weak simply to allow governments to demolish their ‘noble’ rights following terror attacks. While the US Patriot Act was passed before the dust of 9/11 had even settled, enough people persistently and emphatically rejected and eventually killed off the following Total Information Awareness program that would have collated all real-time communications and databases everywhere. Opposition to ID cards in Britain strengthened even after 7/7, because people knew these tracking devices couldn’t stop terrorism but would create a mother lode of personal data for the government, hackers and criminals to trawl through and sell.

Guantánamo Bay, confessions extracted by waterboarding, executions by drones, extraordinary rendition and torture in ex-Soviet gulags, and the lies that led to the Iraq War, as well as enterprises set up or colluded in by the CIA, MI6 and elected governments in the US, Britain and Europe – all these show how very violent and repressive Western states actually are.

This is not to mention that anyone foreign-looking may be subject to stop searches, deportations, shootings in underground stations or house-arrests for non-existent plots involving ricin or [the Manchester United stadium] Old Trafford. And apparently we can forestall the inevitable blowback by ever more irrelevant surveillance measures, such as governments reading our emails. To which I will not say ‘go right ahead, I’m sure it’s all for my own good’.


Zigazou under a CC Licence

Blatant injustices and torture speak for themselves. Hardly anyone would want to justify the gross violations of human rights that happened in Iraq, Afghanistan or in the extra-rendition prisons in some remote countries. However, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are really 2004’s problems. What we are facing now is a much more complex, stealthy and pervasive threat: that of all kinds of data-retention programs, vetting and profiling attempts – not so much initiated by governments, but by commercial enterprises, operating without boundaries, borders or oversight mechanisms.

Thus, again, rather than pointing to supposedly oppressive regimes, we should be aware of the ‘security as enterprise’ approach that is pervading our industrialized world. Security nowadays is nothing much to worry about for most people. Current worries are presented by the monetary and economic crises, not by invisible data collection programs. But this ‘security as enterprise’, or even ‘security as comfort’ approach creates victims by the thousands: it divides whole populations into risk-free citizens on the one hand and risk-bearers on the other. People with double passports, travellers to the Middle East, even people with diabetes, if profiled as bearing a risk to the commercial enterprise of an airport, or as otherwise deviating from purported safe standards, will be tracked, endlessly vetted, and discriminated against in all kinds of ways.

In short, rather than remaining entrenched in last year’s battles, let’s concentrate on the techniques of profiling and collecting data. And let’s not point fingers at governments alone, but challenge private companies to come clean about how they sell false security promises for their own benefits, creating new divisions in societies in their wake.


It seems we agree that endemic surveillance is hell on wheels and is being implemented with the illusion of being done in all good faith by governments and private companies, although it’s palpably not true to say that Guantánamo etc is ‘2004’s problem’.

They illustrate the extremes of abuses that governments of all hues and their privatized partners readily undertake while demanding from us that the price of freedom is to stand naked at all times before the state under all-pervasive suspicion, where threat is based not on realities, but on what might be.

This has been enabled by the pernicious concept of ‘risk’, taken up by governments working with no open oversight or scrutiny, providing entirely venal solutions to non-existent problems, leading to schoolchildren having to surrender their fingerprints to take books out, or mothers needing criminal record bureau checks to taxi their chronically ill children to hospital.

The surveillance industry is a growing business that provides profits, employment and sponsorship for politicians pushing a world where it’s not about who you are or what you know but what you can prove you’re not.


‘Risk’ is indeed the new buzzword; it is not just a new way of perceiving security issues, but has become a mode of governance. The concept of risk not only tackles historical and actual threats (by using them as calculation models for future ones), but also suggests a taming of an uncertain future. By means of risk assessments, apocalyptic horrors are invoked on a daily basis, based on worst-case scenario thinking, stress testing or premeditation.

We see it in courts, where what-if arguments replace habeas corpus considerations, such as in the numerous convictions of terrorism suspects that were apprehended on little more than rumours, or ambiguous taped conversations. Securitization of justice is well under way.

Risk has also become the new dividing principle throughout society, whether you’ll be profiled as a risk while queuing at an airport, or as an uninsurable citizen, forced to pay outrageous insurance premiums.

Therefore, rather than focusing on the obvious and blatant transgressions of democratic rule of law or human rights alone, we should demonstrate how the new politics of risk and prevention work, and how they are increasingly overturning considerations of prudence, accountability and civil rights.

There is enough work to be done for all of us, experts, academics and human rights activists alike. The new ideology of risk and security management is simply too expensive, too ineffective and plain unjust.

Robin Tudge is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance, inspired by his campaigning for NO2ID. He also wrote the pioneering Bradt Guide to North Korea and is now based in Newcastle where he works as a freelance journalist and actor.

Beatrice de Graaf is Professor for Conflict and Security History at Leiden University, the Netherlands and the author of Evaluating Counterterrorist Performance: A Comparative Study. Visit her research site at: http://hum.leiden.edu/history/enemies-of-the-state

New Internationalist issue 454 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2012 issue of New Internationalist.
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