Global surveillance is not about privacy

It has now been almost two years since Snowden. It’s time for us to admit this has little to do with privacy. Global surveillance is not global only because it targets people all over the world. Global surveillance is done for and against global interests. Privacy, by contrast, is an individual right. It’s simply the wrong description level. This is not about your internet history or private phone calls, even if the media and Snowden wish it were.

Privacy is rarely seen as a fundamental right. Privacy is relevant insofar as it enables control, harming freedom, or insofar as it causes the violation of a fundamental right. But the capabilities of intelligence agencies to carry out surveillance over their own citizens are far lower than their capability to monitor foreigners. Any control this monitoring might entail will never be at the individual level; governments can’t exert direct control over individual citizens of foreign countries.


Framing this as an issue of individual privacy is a strategic move done against the interests of individuals. The media does it to get attention. Snowden does it to get leverage. Governments may do it because they want to join the Global Espionage Club – the Five Eyes – for plausible deniability, and to increase their own surveillance capabilities. The US may allow it because it already decided to bite the bullet on privacy and it doesn’t want to add State/trade secrecy violation to the list.

It is well known that the private communications of the President of the United States are under surveillance by multiple intelligence agencies.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.