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How Governments use Internet Surveillance to Control Populations

Heather Parry

By Heather Parry

21 February 2014

As of the time of writing, there are currently two major uprisings happening in the world. While Kiev’s Independence Square burns and Ukrainian police allegedly use fatal force to disperse those protesting the Ukrainian government’s move towards Russian influence, thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets in Caracas to demonstrate against their new president’s socialist government. 

In the 21st Century, both violent and non-violent uprisings are almost inextricably linked with internet use, telecommunications and social media; not only is the communications network a powerful tool to ensure mass gatherings and create safety for protestors, it is also an almost terrifying efficient way for governments to control populations and threaten demonstrators.

Just two weeks ago, Ukrainians who found themselves standing close to fighting between protestors and police forces all received a chilling message on their cellphones: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

And yet, it isn’t just in the midst of protest that governments use telecommuncations to control their people. In fact, it’s difficult to know just which governments are using internet surveillance to track their people, but we know one thing for sure: It’s a practice that’s on the rise.

A March 2013 report from Reporters Without Borders outlined the many ways in which governments can silence criticism through web surveillance the most effective method of which is through intercepting online communication and tracking web use. People who access or create “flagged” content such as political criticism or make the mistake of expressing anti-government views in an email can then be arrested on suspicion of dissent and sentenced on charges that have almost no bearing on their behavior, much like the conviction of Pussy Riot members for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after staging an anti-Putin protest in a church.

By targeting vocal dissenters, governments send a strong message out to the rest of the population: anti-government behavior will be punished, and punished severely. This controls populations by frightening them into line, and when there is no dissenting voice to be heard, dissent cannot take place.

When you couple this behavior with online censorship and the control of information, you’ve got a potent combination for absolute jurisdiction over the communications within a country, and therefore for total control of a people.

It’s imperative that web users educate themselves about the myriad ways in which internet surveillance can be used to oppress, and it’s equally as important that those users take steps to secure themselves as much as possible when they’re online. With more and more government surveillance methods being revealed by whistleblowers, it’ll soon be tough to ignore the situation. 

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