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    Op-Ed at Wired: How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?

    In an opinion column at Wired, Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman talks about surveillance and its place in a democracy that offers privacy rights and civil liberties:

    The current level of general surveillance in society is incompatible with human rights. To recover our freedom and restore democracy, we must reduce surveillance to the point where it is possible for whistleblowers of all kinds to talk with journalists without being spotted. To do this reliably, we must reduce the surveillance capacity of the systems we use.

    Using free/libre software, as I’ve advocated for 30 years, is the first step in taking control of our digital lives. We can’t trust non-free software; the NSA uses and even creates security weaknesses in non-free software so as to invade our own computers and routers. Free software gives us control of our own computers, but that won’t protect our privacy once we set foot on the internet.

    Bipartisan legislation to “curtail the domestic surveillance powers” in the U.S. is being drawn up, but it relies on limiting the government’s use of our virtual dossiers. That won’t suffice to protect whistleblowers if “catching the whistleblower” is grounds for access sufficient to identify him or her. We need to go further. […]

    We need to reduce the level of general surveillance, but how far? Where exactly is the maximum tolerable level of surveillance, beyond which it becomes oppressive? That happens when surveillance interferes with the functioning of democracy: when whistleblowers (such as [former NSA contractor Edward Snowden]) are likely to be caught. […]

     When people recognize that the level of general surveillance is too high, the first response is to propose limits on access to the accumulated data. That sounds nice, but it won’t fix the problem, not even slightly, even supposing that the government obeys the rules. (The NSA has misled the FISA court, which said it was unable to effectively hold the NSA accountable.) Suspicion of a crime will be grounds for access, so once a whistleblower is accused of “espionage”, finding the “spy” will provide an excuse to access the accumulated material. […]

    If we don’t want a total surveillance society, we must consider surveillance a kind of social pollution, and limit the surveillance impact of each new digital system just as we limit the environmental impact of physical construction.

    Read the full story for Stallman’s suggestions on how to design systems with privacy protections.

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