Beware state surveillance of your lives – governments can change for the worse

This morning’s Observer column:

In the summer of 2013, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance capabilities of the American National Security Agency (NSA) began to appear, I had a private conversation with a former cabinet minister about the implications of the leaks. At one stage, I mentioned to him a remark attributed to a prime architect of some of the NSA systems – that they had taken the US to “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. The MP scoffed at the idea. What I needed to remember, he told me, in that superior tone that toffs adopt when speaking to their gardeners, was that the US and the UK were “mature democracies”. In such polities, the chances of anyone coming to power who might have the inclination to use such power for sinister purposes was, he said, zero.

Three years later, the US elected Donald Trump. Five years after Trump, look around: an increasing number of democracies are now run by autocrats of various stripes. Think of Orbán in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and others in Latin America. None of these autocrats has any scruples about using intelligence collected by state agencies against critics, dissidents and potential opponents. In fact, they positively relish being just a keystroke away from totalitarian control.

And now, in a new twist, a gang of seventh-century religious fanatics has taken control of Afghanistan…

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