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06 March 2018

The Misconception of Mass-Surveillance

Pedro Lagonegro

The information era in which we live today brings the process of strategic communication to the concerns of high-level policy makers.

Surveillance in action

The information era in which we live today brings the process of strategic communication to the concerns of high-level policy makers. The global consequences brought about by the Snowden leaks of 2013 is explicit evidence of this. My aim is to promote awareness of the public misconceptions with regards to the notion of mass-surveillance and to explore why governments did not efficiently communicate with the public in the context of the Snowden case.

The exploitation of these leaked materials by the mainstream media promoted a misconstrued idea of governments infringing on people’s right to privacy, embedding misleading views deep within the public mindset, resulting in worldwide protests and, most worrying, misled legislative reforms. Firstly, to avoid such a dangerous fallacy, one central technicality should have been described and clearly explained to the public: the difference between mass surveillance and bulk collection. The former is an absolute self-explanatory concept; as defined in the Cambridge Dictionary, surveillance means “the careful watching of a person or place, especially by the police or army”. Hence, mass surveillance literally means the careful watching of millions of people, which is realistically impossible when considering today’s technology and available qualified manpower. What does happen is so-called bulk collection.

So why didn’t the US and UK governments create their own narratives to explain such a crucial distinction to the public? In my view, there was one main concern that explains why: intelligence agencies are naturally hesitant to reveal internal processes that could perhaps be explored by the enemy for counter-intelligence tradecraft purposes. And so, by failing to achieve a balance between informing the public and safeguarding intelligence trade-craft secrets, governments allowed these popular misconceptions to be perceived as the truth in the public eye.

To better illustrate the concept in question, imagine a paper shooting-target made of three circles, where the most outer circle represents the digital space of bulk collection. This space contains billions of bits of data extracted randomly through powerful algorithms, which operate on word-hunt and metadata analysis, meaning from and to where the data was sent, how frequently, and to whom and by whom. Information in this circle will seldom be looked at, if ever. The algorithms catch repetitions of words and other metadata patterns that might indicate suspicious activities or behaviour. When such suspicions are detected, the related information moves on to the next smaller inner circle. The process is repeated until the data reaches the most inner-circle, where true suspects are found (Figure 1). Nonetheless, current capabilities do not even allow for all of these individuals to be put under surveillance. Considering this limited capacity, I believe that intelligence agencies were likely trying to protect their own ability to still perform such essential tasks without giving a chance for perpetrators to develop evading tactics, which today may be possible considering that the process has become public, and yet this message has not been properly conveyed to the public.