Frankly speaking, most of us have thought about this at least a few times. Some of us worry more than others, but the fact of the matter is that these worries are not without good reason. A lot of governments are notorious for watchdogging and monitoring their citizens. Whilst it's mostly the autocratic or totalitarian governments that do it, scandals like Edward Snowden's whistleblowing on the NSA can also prove that even Western, democratic governments are involved in this.
So, is the government watching me? How and why do they do that? How can I protect myself from this and what tools can I use for that? We'll try to answer each and every single one of these questions.
Governments are watching people - overview
The government is always watching us. They know a lot about us. To what degree does their knowledge extend is a different question, but overall - an effective and functioning government tries to keep tabs on its citizens for a number of reasons. Yet, some watching is acceptable and necessary in certain situations, whilst other measures are completely unacceptable and violate trust, ethics and even democratic norms.
As you can see, the US government spends upwards of $60 billion per year on national intelligence alone. Yup, they spend around 3 times more money on tracking and monitoring their own citizens or people inside the country than they allocate for trying to do covert, high-level missions abroad. This money for domestic intelligence isn't 100% dedicated to just tracking potential terrorists or criminals. Some of this money is almost without a doubt, used to monitor people that have done nothing bad. In the United States, these are most commonly individuals who address the need for political changes, who speak out against the government, and those who are marked as potential security threats.
Things are far worse for people in countries like Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. For example, the Chinese government has billions of active street cameras out in public places. Billions. And almost all of them run facial recognition software. The facial recognition algorithms they use are getting more and more accurate, meaning that their ability to track people is almost otherworldly. They can find you in a crowd of thousands of people, track the car you got into, know when and how you paid for your last meal, etc.
The sheer scale of how the Chinese government is tracking its citizens is unparalleled. Around 21 million people live in Beijing. According to this chart, the city should have around 1.1 million public cameras all over town. It's insane.
The first terrible thing that comes to mind is the implementation of what is referred to as the national social score (credit) system. It is used as a tool of social control and rates individuals on their behavior. People who get picked up by cameras for Jaywalking are put up on huge billboards
where they are shamed for this. In the system, earning points is hard, but it gets you priority access to schools, healthcare, and work. Losing points is easy and it diminishes your basic rights, and regaining points is definitely a tough task. So, in essence the Chinese government is watching its people and rates them. This seems like something straight out of a Black Mirror episode.
The Chinese government is not alone in this though. As you can see from this map, many countries all over the globe are not respecting the privacy of their citizens.
How well is your country doing in terms of freedom? The higher the "Freedom score", the less monitoring your country is doing.
Why do governments track, monitor & watch their citizens?
There is no single answer to this question. Different countries do it for different reasons, but the most common one that politicians like to utter is "to keep their citizens safe". The idea is that if the government knows what you're up to at all times, then they can more easily prevent terrorist attacks or catch criminals. This is especially true in the case of mass surveillance. But, such practices are much more prevalent in countries with autocratic or totalitarian regimes, so you could also ponder that fragile leaders are scared of regime changes and try to suppress freedom.
For the most part, they seem to do it for more control and to strengthen their positions. Even though the underlying reasons may be understandable - e.g. terrorism or crime prevention, finding kidnapped people, etc., almost without exception these measures are exploited to varying degrees. Experience shows us that, unfortunately, we cannot trust governments to not exploit our privacy for their own gains. Speaking of which.
What are the threats associated with government surveillance?
There are many threats that come along with government surveillance. The most common ones are:
The loss of privacy: This is the most obvious one. If the government is watching you, then they know things from your life that you aren't necessarily willing to share. They know what you're up to, who your friends are, what your interests are, etc. They can use this information to blackmail you or to put pressure on you directly or indirectly (e.g. through your employer) to act in a certain way, influence your decision-making, impact your private life.
The chilling effect: This is the second most common threat that's very well documented. The chilling effect describes an idea: if people know they're being watched, they will self-censor themselves and will be less likely to speak their minds or act freely. This is a very real threat, especially in countries with repressive regimes. For example, some video bloggers who grew up in such countries but since have moved abroad, still find themselves removing parts from their content that portray certain topics, associated with politics, self-censoring in a way.
The rise of autocracies: As we've seen in the past few years, autocracies are on the rise all over the world. Previously democratic countries turned autocratic or even totalitarian. One of the key ingredients for such regimes is surveillance. If the government is watching you, then they can easily suppress any dissent and consolidate their power.
The normalization of surveillance: This is a long-term threat. If we get used to the fact that the government is watching us, then we will slowly start to accept it as normal. Once that happens, it will be very hard to get rid of it. This happened in East Germany, in the Soviet Union and is now present in most of China.
How to protect yourself from government surveillance?
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from government surveillance. Our guide will mainly focus on digital surveillance since users can control much more of their privacy than they think and they do have effective measures available to them.
Use encrypted communication channels
This is the most effective way to protect your communications or data from being spied on. If you use strong encryption, then even if the government does get ahold of your data, they won't be able to read it. Encrypting your emails, messages and other browser data is super important.
One of the best ways to do so is to install and use end-to-end encrypted messenger apps just like Kraden. It works on the basis of zero-knowledge architecture and provides a safe median for anonymous messaging
for every user. By encrypting your messages end-to-end with sophisticated AES-256 cryptography and prioritizing P2P connectivity, Kraden is able to hide your data from prying eyes. Even if hackers do obtain your data, it's still unreadable.
Use a VPN service to encrypt your internet traffic
This is especially important if you're using public WiFi hotspots or if you're connecting to the internet from a repressive country. A VPN will not only encrypt your traffic but it will also route it through a different server, making it much harder to trace back to you.
Reduce your digital footprint
This is a bit of a more long-term strategy but it's still very effective. If you reduce your digital footprint, then there will be less data for the government to collect in the first place. This means reducing social media usage, avoiding associating something like Google services with personal accounts, not using too many online services that require you to create an account and so on. Reduce your footprint and you will reduce options for anyone else to surveil and harm you.
Government surveillance is a very real threat and in a lot of countries it's only getting worse. To some degree, every government is doing it. However, there are things you can do to protect yourself online. Use encrypted communication channels, install a VPN and reduce your digital footprint. These actions should make targeting you much difficult or near impossible.