Challenging the Surveillance Society

03/04/2015 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015
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The United States has been the focus of concerns about government surveillance, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). But that surveillance has not just been of American citizens. Europeans, for instance, expressed considerable outrage that the NSA was conducting surveillance of non-Americans under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that permits a wide authority to target foreign government agents, suspected terrorists, and even "foreign-based political organizations," which could include media outlets and civil society organizations.

The U.S. government replied that it does not engage in bulk collection of European data and only targets those suspected of terrorism and nuclear proliferation (though this became questionable when it turned out that the NSA had tapped into German Prime Minister Angela Merkel's cellphone and those of other leaders). Additionally, U.S. intelligence officials claimed that Europeans were more likely to be under surveillance from their own governments than from the United States. It turns out, however, that in Europe it's much more likely for the police, not the intelligence agencies, to be conducting that surveillance.

Whether it's the NSA, European intelligence agencies, private corporations, or the police, Katarzyna Szymielewicz is deeply concerned about the erosion of privacy and civil rights. She heads up the Polish organization called Panoptykon, which was established "to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in the context of fast-changing technologies and growing surveillance." The "panopticon" was an invention of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham: a prison in which observers at the center of a circular building can keep tabs on the prisoners arrayed on the periphery of the building.

"The big challenge for us was to think of a name," Szymielewicz told me in an interview in the organization's office in Warsaw in August 2013. "There were four of us talking about it. We were in agreement that human rights are very important, but we have to look at them through the lens of power relations, and information is the key to the exercise of power. We are not really free, just governed in a different way. But how could we frame that topic so that it's understandable to other people? Finally we got to the name Panoptykon -- meaning exactly what we want to prevent from happening."

In part because of the surveillance experiences of the Communist era, Poles are especially sensitive to the issue of government intrusion into the private sphere. Even before the Snowden revelations, thousands of Poles went into the streets at the beginning of 2012 to oppose the government's signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Governments and industries were pushing for the agreement in order to protect copyright and patents; activists worried about infringement of free expression. As a result of the demonstrations, the Polish government suspended its participation in the agreement, and the European parliament eventually rejected the treaty.

But Panoptykon is not just worried about the operations of foreign services or the effects of international treaties. "In Poland we have a law that forces telecom operators to store data, which was originally generated for commercial purposes," Szymielewicz continued. "This information shows how, with whom, for how long, and in which way we communicate, with our mobile phone, PC, and so on. According to the law, this data must be stored for 12 months, in case it becomes useful for law enforcement. It used to be 24 months, but after our campaign it was shortened to one year. We thought that this retention of data, on the grounds that it may become useful if you turn out to be a terrorist, reveals the modern concept of surveillance. We no longer wait for someone to become a suspect. The state forces operators to collect that data for the day that it becomes useful for law enforcement. They can knock on the door and ask for that data at any time during that 12-month period. It's a comfortable situation for law enforcement, but it's uncomfortable for citizens to feel that, as a matter of fact, they've all become suspects."

This metadata provides a great deal of information about a person's lifestyle and routine. "It shows how we move around the city and the country," she continued. "It reveals who calls me and whom I call. In correlation to publicly available data, on the Internet, for instance, it can say a lot about things that we don't want to reveal to the state. For us this became the typical example of how modern surveillance operates. We started to argue against it. We pressured the European Commission and the Polish government to explain why they needed to collect all this data about every citizen and store it for a year or, as it was originally planned, two years. It was a very long process. We did many things. We conducted public debates. We sent Freedom of Information Access requests to the police, the intelligence agencies, and the office that supervises telecom companies to see how many requests have been made over the years. We were able to show that the number of such requests in Poland was incredibly high compared to other countries."

Even more troubling, there was no oversight of this system of data collection. Panoptykon has worked with lawyers, the Polish ombudsman, and others to shorten the period of data retention and to implement an oversight mechanism.

We talked about how she became involved in this work, how Polish politicians have reacted to surveillance issues, and why Snowden deserves the EU's Sakharov Prize (for which he was shortlisted in 2013).

The Interview

Tell me what Panoptykon does. What are you most proud of in terms of success, and what remains the biggest challenge?

The main challenge was to reveal a problem that people don't see. We came to realize that in this country we are embedded in a very liberal discourse. We are being taught by politicians that all the big debates have been sorted out. This is third-way politics, like Tony Blair did it. Poland was heading in the same political direction when we started Panoptykon. We thought that the main challenge and goal was to destroy this picture of us living in a liberal world with nothing else to win by explaining to people how they are really being governed, how there's a power struggle going on and why their freedom is at stake. It's an abstract challenge but at the same time a fundamental one.

Talking about success, we started the debate on the concept of the surveillance society, which began to appear in the Polish public debate and which hadn't happened before. It happened not because of our theoretical work but because of many particular campaigns centered around concrete topics. We were able to build our campaign around these specific cases, and as a result many important public intellectuals started to identify surveillance as a problem. I perceive this as our main success.

It seems also the main challenge because surveillance remains a sophisticated problem. People who are struggling with simpler needs -- poverty, lack of income, social exclusion -- these are the people who are often the victims of surveillance, but they don't enter the debate. They don't deal with the problem because it seems distant to them. But people who live comfortable lives and have power also don't see this as their business. So we don't have many natural partners ready to dig into the problem. It's a huge challenge just to explain what is at stake. Sometimes we laugh about this: We create problems that people don't want to see. Many don't want to leave their comfort zone to see the problem. We not only face lack of awareness; we have to deal with the state of denial. So it's a real challenge to explain and encourage people to do something about it

Our main method of action is rather sophisticated legal work. As lawyers -- and most of us are lawyers -- we identify a piece of legislation, either existing or proposed, that would result in more surveillance, or where the surveillance seems unjustified. We agree that some forms of surveillance can be justified or necessary; sometimes you have to use data about individuals for common benefit. But very often surveillance in this country is applied just because it's the easiest way and we've gotten used to using data. Many uses of surveillance are very far from what I would see as necessary and proportionate.

We focus on legal actions and interventions and on public debate, working with opinion-shaping media. We don't go very broad. We don't go to tabloids or main TV stations. Even when we're on TV and we're quoted in the news, it's always detached from the surveillance concept. It's too complicated a message for this audience. Knowing that, we choose to communicate our mission to people who can understand it: some politicians, some journalists, and some experts like the ombudsman or the commissioner of data protection in Poland. These are our natural partners.

Can you give me several examples of the cases you've worked on?

The biggest case that we're working on and we've worked on for much of the time that we've existed is mandatory, blanket data retention in telecommunications. In Poland we have a law that forces telecom operators to store data, which was originally generated for commercial purposes. This information shows how, with whom, for how long, and in which way we communicate, with our mobile phone, PC, and so on. According to the law, this data must be stored for 12 months, in case it becomes useful for law enforcement. It used to be 24 months, but after our campaign it was shortened to one year. We thought that this retention of data, on the grounds that it may become useful if you turn out to be a terrorist, reveals the modern concept of surveillance. We no longer wait for someone to become a suspect. The state forces operators to collect that data for the day that it becomes useful for law enforcement. They can knock on the door and ask for that data at any time during that 12-month period. It's a comfortable situation for law enforcement, but it's uncomfortable for citizens to feel that, as a matter of fact, they've all become suspects.

This metadata can reveal a lot about our networks, habits, lifestyle, and routines. It shows how we move around the city and the country. It reveals who calls me and whom I call. In correlation to publicly available data, on the Internet, for instance, it can say a lot about things that we don't want to reveal to the state. For us this became the typical example of how modern surveillance operates. We started to argue against it. We pressured the European Commission and the Polish government to explain why they needed to collect all this data about every citizen and store it for a year or, as it was originally planned, two years. It was a very long process. We did many things. We conducted public debates. We sent Freedom of Information Access requests to the police, the intelligence agencies, and the office that supervises telecom companies to see how many requests have been made over the years. We were able to show that the number of such requests in Poland was incredibly high compared to other countries.

In the United States those requests have to go through a court. Is that the case here in Poland?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.