Fear is present in societies all over the globe, now more than ever. Mass surveillance has increased drastically during the past years. At the World Forum for Democracy, I had the opportunity to talk to Nighat Dad who gave insight into the situation in Pakistan and her work at the Digital Rights Foundation. She explained why mass surveillance does not only provide security, but also surpresses fundamental human rights.

Rescue from terror?

Seven men entering a school, pulling out their guns and murdering 141 people within only a few hours. That is what happened in 2014 during a terrorist attack at the Peshawar school in Pakistan. A few men spreading out over the city, pulling out their Kalashnikovs and shooting more than 130 people within a few hours. That is what happened a few days ago in Paris. The effect is the same: Fear. Fear, because you could have been there. Fear, because it goes beyond the comprehensible. Fear, that more attacks will follow. What you want to hear now is that these happenings can be prevented, that they will not happen again. Nobody can give you that promise, but governments and intelligence agencies tell you that they know what measures to take to get closer to it. And the only thing you need to do is to give up a bit of your privacy rights (not that you would notice if they were violated anyway), and perhaps be a bit more careful in what you are saying.

Mass surveillance can’t be the savior

Nighat Dad
Nighat Dad on the right

Despite the fact that these restricitions take place slowly without us realizing how some parts of our self-determination slips through our hands, those demands are violating basic human rights and fundaments of democratic system: The freedom of speech and right for privacy. Nowadays, execution of these rights happens a lot online. This is why Nighat Dad, a lawyer and internet activist, founded the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan in 2012. Her work focuses on the “new paradigm of human rights and technology” which is untouched territory for most activists. Next to providing digital security trainings and workshops which especially help vulnerable groups to make use of their rights and protect themselves online, the foundation also monitors legislations concerning digital rights in Pakistan.

Fear as the engine of legal human rights violations

After the Peshawar school massacre in 2014, a new cyber crime bill limiting fundamental freedoms, was introduced right away. Nighat agrees that such happenings are terrifying, but also sees how “governments capitalize on such events”. They use them to change the public narrative shifting from freedom towards control and to pass controversial legislation, making use of people’s emotional responses – in developing countries such as Pakistan as well as in developed countries like France. However, countries like the U.S., France or Germany function as a role model and if their governments allow, and their societies tolerate mass surveillance, it gives governments in developing countries “more room to justify their actions” and makes activists’ work like Nighat’s much harder – in a surrounding where many people do not even dare to question their governments.

But in the end, and Nighat found the right words for it: “Asking for more power to practice mass surveillance is wrong.” Fear should not be the engine of legal human rights violations. As Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said after the attacks in Oslo in 2011: The response to violence should be “more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”. What means security with limited rights? Can’t security go hand in hand with freedom? Is it dangerous to take human rights for granted? Instead of spreading mistrust by surveilling every one of us, especially now governments should empower us to fight for our freedoms, hold on to the values of democracy, and jointly gain back the feeling of security.