As militant groups all over the world increasingly get access to more and deadlier weapons,
terrorism is becoming an ever-increasing threat.
This is causing concern among the common people, which in democracies, in turn causes concern among the politicians.
Governments seek measures to keep the danger of terrorism in check.
While the causes for this phenomenon are social and complicated,
the answers from the politicians are technological and simple.
The main countermeasure is to use technology from the information age to spy on terrorists, so that they may be caught before they can launch their attacks. Even if they cannot be caught, the information gathered can be used to track down their movements and possibly identify their sponsors.
The same information can also be used to spot common criminals and even ordinary citizens who commit minor offences.
At least, that is the theory.
In reality all the information gathering has done little to stop terrorism.
Terrorists see themselves as warriors and thus act like ones:
If they encounter a strong defense at one point they will look for a weak spot at another - and find it.
The cat and mouse game between terrorists and the law enforcers really is a weapons race where neither side can keep an advantage for long.
In the meanwhile all the information gathering mainly benefits the police in hunting down petty criminals, governments to spy on their citizens and helping big industry companies to protect their monopolies.
Belong is a sample of recent advances in the hunt for civil information, combined with extended powers of the government, that have been implemented in the Netherlands in the last two decades.
- Every citizen is required to carry a passport or other identification document on his/her person at all times, so that he/she may be identified by the police at all times. While this has not yet stopped a single terrorist, it has enabled the police to supplement government income by issuing fines to hundreds of people who were not able to identify themselves this way.
- People can be sentenced to jail if it is considered proven that they are member of a "criminal organisation". They are no longer required to have committed a crime themselves.
- Providers of information and financial services like phone and internet providers and banks are required to keep logs and give the police and secret service access to phone conversations, locations of mobile phones, internet traffic and money transactions.
- In certain areas, police are entitled to search the pockets of trespassers on the streets for weapons. They are not required to identify these people as criminals, any suspicion is sufficient reason.
- Government databases, currently heavily fragmented and inter-incompatible with each other, are increasingly coupled and streamlined to allow data from various sources to be easily queried. Eventuelly, all kinds of data about a person can be conjured with a single key stroke. Commercial parties have already expressed a strong interest in gaining access to these systems to fuel their marketing efforts.
- Next to company offices that are abandonded at night, surveillance cameras are popping up in shops and on the streets. They are not only used to record crimes and identify criminals after a crime has been committed, but also for active monitoring, with operators watching people's every move. In the UK some cameras have been fitted with microphones to enable the security guards behind the monitors to give directions to the people on the street. I've seen an example where a security guard used this to order a woman to pick up the sigarette butt that she has just thrown away and deposit it into the waste bin where it belonged.
Now some people will ask:
"What is wrong with all this?
Aren't the police the good guys and their opponents the bad guys?"
But if you take a closer look at the above list, you will find that not all examples meet the prime quality of every democratic move: that it should be good for the people. Some measures seem to benefit the state, as a thing in itself, not as a thing that represents its citizens. We are steadily moving towards what is commonly known as a police state.
Again I hear the voices of my critics: "Surely things are not so bad? Yes, the state is becoming more powerful, but we are not even near to becoming a police state." The response is that things are moving faster than one might think.
As another small but significant example, the government is now launching marketing campaigns to promote a healthy lifestyle. While I (heartily) agree with the viewpoint that they are putting forth and are aware that this is but an advice and not a law, it is bizarre to see a democratic government telling its citizens how to behave, rather than the other way around.
As said, the examples listed above all come from a two-decade period, which shows the speed at which this development is taking place. It looks like that at the current speed, we'll have a genuine DDR-like police state in about two generations.
Confronted with that bold prediction, one cannot wonder why this is happening, or rather, why we let this happen.
In most western democracies, people have delegated a number of privileges and powers to the state since their founding,
the most important one being the right to carry and wield arms.
(The USA is a notable exception in this regard)
Another example is the right to levy taxes and spent the money on the common good for the people,
the common good being (indirectly) determined by the majority.
These are fundamental to the functioning of the state and I do not question them.
There is no use for a state if it cannot wield any power.
But, as shown above, through time, the government and its bureaucracy are given more and more priviliges and power. This trend is fueled by both the desire of the citizens to stop being bothered by certain matters and the desire of institutions like states to gain more control. I think it is the natural tendency of democracies, given the current information revolution, to develop in this direction. It is the way of the water, the way of least resistance.
This is a call to not give in to this natural tendency, to keep a wary eye on government powers and halt, divert and counter the flow where necessary. All because this natural order ends at a muddy pool deep down below. There the state has firm control over its citizens, who have little control over the state. That is no longer a democracy, that is a police state. While an all-powerful state can theoretically be beneficial to their citizens, one only has to look at history to see that it never has.