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Politicians and Activists Blast Mass Surveillance at VICE News Davos Panel

An international panel debated the causes and effects of mass surveillance Thursday at an event organized by VICE News during the World Economic Forum.

by Samuel Oakford
Jan 21 2016, 11:20pm

Darrell Issa, Salil Shetty y Amira Yahyaoui.

Attendees at the World Economic Forum, including Belgium's deputy prime minister, widely criticized mass surveillance techniques on Thursday at an event organized by VICE News alongside the global elite's annual gathering.

"The moment you start doing continuous mass surveillance, in essence what you are saying is everyone is a suspect," said Belgian deputy prime minister Alexander De Croo, who is charged with overseeing the country's telecommunications industry. "The moment you say as a government that everyone is a suspect, well, then you're in essence in a totalitarian society."

The panel, part of the Open Forum Davos, was accessible to residents and visitors to the Swiss alpine town, unlike sessions at the heavily guarded main conference.

Watch the panel.

Amnesty International's secretary general Salil Shetty recalled how his father, a journalist, had ended up on a surveillance list in their hometown of Bangalore, India. "Governments historically… have a very detailed intelligence network to find out who's their opposition," he said. "The majority of what mass surveillance and intelligence is used for is to curb dissent, is to kill dissent," and not to stop terrorism.

The Amnesty chief cited the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, imprisoned and sentenced to lashings by the government over a political blog he maintained.

Bassim Haidar, founder and CEO of Channel IT Group, a United Arab Emirates–based telecommunications company with wide holdings in Africa, offered an alternative analysis that implicated consumers, suggesting that they maintained a double standard on surveillance — willfully turning over their data time and again to corporations while complaining about governments compiling similar information.

"If a private company says, 'We would like your information so we can provide you better services,' you would give it willingly," Haidar said. "When it comes to government, because we have a distrust with governments therefore we feel that information shouldn't get there."

Shetty countered: "It's different when people are voluntarily giving information. It's a totally different picture when the government or companies are surveilling [without consent]."

Alluding to terrorism, Republican US Congressman Darrell Issa said citizens in democracies had to live with a degree of risk — a tradeoff, he said, for personal freedoms.

"The challenge is in democracies, people will react after tragedies and say, 'Make me safe.' In time, they will say, 'What about my liberties?'" he said. "We have to make sure we think about the liberties when people are screaming for safety and about safety when liberty means you don't do anything.

"If you want 100 percent safety, you live in a dictatorship."

Shetty said the conception that citizens clamored for draconian responses to terror attacks was overblown, and argued along with De Croo that wide-scale surveillance, instead of targeted counter-terrorism efforts, actually did little to head off terror plots. Asked about Belgium's reaction to the November terrorist attacks in Paris — several perpetrators were linked to a Brussels neighborhood, and Belgian authorities were criticized for their handling of suspects — De Croo said "all of the people that were involved in the terrorist attacks, all of them were on lists. And they were on lists because they visited certain mosques that we were looking at because they were in certain groups and so on.

"So the idea of you need to spy on the whole public because the idea that there might be someone who is in his cellar, just in his basement, constructing something, I don't think that's a good reason because that's not proven as a reason up till now," he added.

Amira Yahyaoui, a Tunisian journalist and founder of the watchdog group Al Bawsala, argued that wide-scale surveillance of political dissidents in the Middle East did little to prevent the spread of groups like the Islamic State.

"This mass surveillance is showing the failure of the intelligence system," she said.

According to Yahyoui, it was dangerous that many of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world, like America's NSA, are staffed by appointees, not elected officials. "Those that are elected don't even know what is happening," she said.

Related: This Year in Davos, Opponents Aren't Even Bothering to Protest

Indeed, De Croo said that despite his position, he still didn't know of the involvement of Belgian's intelligence community in the infiltration of Belgacom International Carrier Services, one of many revelations inside documents leaked by NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"The whole question was, did we agree or not?" De Croo said. "It might very well be that the Belgian intelligence services said. 'Yeah, why not?"

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

world economic forum
defense & security
Darrell Issa
mass surveillance
salil shetty
alexander de croo
amira yahyaoui