The United States Constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms as a last resort insurance policy against the government turning tyrannical and taking away their liberty. Guns are too effective, the argument goes, to be the preserve of government; the executive branch should not have a monopoly on their use.
I have often questioned the merits of that trade off for the everyday citizen. Having an armed citizenry has severe downsides, and there are other ways to stop a government turning tyrannical. But I’ve never questioned the basic logic of the 2nd Amendment – it would stop the government depriving people of their liberty.
But there now exists a weapon that is even more powerful than guns for controlling a population, and we’ve learned this week that the United States government is busy cornering the market on its use. That weapon is people’s private data, their emails, phone conversations and files.
“Don’t worry” they say, “if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear”.
There isn’t a person on this planet you can’t embarrass, undermine or blackmail if you know enough about them. For politicians who have spent all their lives seeking power, the temptation will be too great. As Edward Snowdon says, having this weapon at your disposal turns the issue of who to use it against into a simple matter of policy.
Entrusting this data to a few corporations is not ideal, but I am reassured by the knowledge that these corporations exist to make money, and they do that by making things that people want. Even free services make money by keeping me engaged and serving me ads for things I actually want and will click on. Corporations don’t run police forces though, they can’t make laws and then lock me up for not following them. If Google or Microsoft ever tried to do that I’m sure we would be horrified. They are fundamentally different from governments, and the fact that you’ve entrusted your data to them should not be taken as justification for governments to copy and store it.
Democracy is a fragile thing, and it is more than simply having elections every so often. Free speech, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, all of these things are vitally important if you are to have a free society. It is a system of rules that prevent the people at the top having too much power. But in the long run, this system will not survive if the people at the top are allowed to wield a weapon as powerful as everyone’s private data.