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Big brother is always watching


Irrespective of the nature of governments, personal liberty and individual privacy have always been breached by those in power.

Mass surveillance might be democracy's perfect antonym, but history shows that personal liberty and individual privacy have been compromised by regimes irrespective of whether they were totalitarian or liberal. The initially simple-looking 1972 burglary in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate apartment - and the subsequent arrest of five men for it - later found its way to the White House. It was soon discovered that it was an act of political espionage sponsored by the then president of the USA, Richard Nixon, against his opponent James Walter McCord. The White House had bugged the Democrat's office and Nixon claimed that the tapes where vital for national security and, hence, couldn't be released. The American president was, of course, forced to release the tapes and had to resign in 1974 before facing an impeachment vote.

What Nixon failed to prove was the validity of 'national security' as an excuse for illegal and elaborate 'bugging', a standard argument used by governments, historically and in contemporary times, to carry out surveillance of their citizens. Be it East Germany's Stasi, Romania's Securitate, Nazi Germany's Gestapo, the Soviet Union's KGB or the American National Security Agency (NSA), every secret police or national security agency has used the Nixon defense to wire-tap suspects or plant agents in every possible corner of society in an attempt to monitor public and private opinion and preempt large-scale rebellion.

Perhaps the most extensive of such networks was built by the East German Stasi - the secret police which infiltrated every aspect of its citizens' private lives. Agents were posted in all major industrial plants, every apartment, school, college, hotel, newspaper offices;they were everywhere. Even an overnight guest was informed about to the police. There was one official agent per 166 citizens and the number came down to one spy for every 6. 5 citizens if part-time informers were included. The Stasi eavesdropped, wiretapped, photographed and secretly filmed its victims, making millions of files and recording all possible details of the lives of the people even remotely suspected by the government.

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms to liberalise communism, the GDR (East Germany) and its 'shield and sword' - the Stasi - also collapsed. In January 1990, people stormed the Stasi headquarters demanding all the collected information be handed over to them. United Germany's government, which decided to allow individuals to view their personal files, received more than 6 million requests from the public.

Stasi might be an extreme example, but governments have always used some excuse or the other to carry out communication surveillance. According to a 2007 'State of Privacy' report by Transparency International, post-9 /11 events have fuelled the emergence of a profitable surveillance industry, many operating outside laws mandated by watchdog agencies and the government. In 2007 alone, two lawsuits were filed against the American government and various telecommunication companies who collaborated with it in the surveillance program that saw the NSA monitor phone calls, text messages, e-mails and other internet activities of people living in the US.

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