In the last couple of years, the extent and power of government internet surveillance has been revealed to the public by whistle-blowers, elevating an obscure topic to international significance. No longer was spying relegated to Cold War drama, and no longer was it restricted to potential enemies of a country – internet surveillance is a very real thing in 2017, and everybody who owns a device capable of connecting to the internet is affected.
As of 2017, most governments have implemented surveillance programs on a broad policy of counter-terrorism and law enforcement. Many people in favour of internet surveillance make the argument that it prevents online predators from exploiting vulnerable people and prevent terrorist attacks, as they can be intercepted by the police before they can do anything. There’s also the classic ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ argument, which ignores how surveillance programs can easily target political activists and minorities, and eventually the entire population of a country.
Internet surveillance varies by county. Most western nations are capable of spying on any device owned by any individual, usually without a warrant, although due to the sheer volume of data on the internet, only a small amount of it can be actively watched. Several countries use surveillance as a way to enforce state censorship, or to prevent criticism of the current regime.
China is notable in that they have created several systems to close off China’s internet users from the world, blocking popular social media sites and using state-approved websites as replacements, such as Google’s Chinese version of its search engine which prevents blocked sites from showing in search results and promoting government-sanctioned ones.
While many authoritarian states seek to control the flow of information through the internet, China is one of the few countries that has successfully implemented such a system. Political discourse on Chinese social media is notably more restrained than in other countries, as people fear being arrested for criticising the regime, and events such as Tiananmen Square have been scrubbed away from popular history in China.
There are ways around government surveillance, such as using VPNs (Virtual Private Network) to hide your IP (Basically your electronic footprint that can be tracked), and proxy servers can be used to access blocked websites on the national level. There are even browsers with built-in anonymising features such as Tor. Nevertheless, most people are ignorant of these methods or lack the technical know-how to use them.
Although most people will buy the argument made by intelligence agencies that online surveillance and censorship is done for national security, there is already a precedent of governments abusing this power, even in western nations that regard China’s strangle-hold on its citizens with disgust. The fact that at any point, a government agency could be going through your internet history with a fine-tooth comb looking for incriminating or embarrassing details in your browsing history should send a chill down your spine, especially if you happen to live in a country that discriminates against certain minorities or political movements. If you do, there is a vast library of circumvention tools that can be used, like VPNs, proxy servers and Tor as described earlier – better to protect yourself from a hostile government than be targeted by them in the name of security and stability.