How government surveillance led to the destruction of social cohesion
The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is not only an important matter because of the group’s brutality, but also because of its effective use of propaganda, which has enabled them to recruit young fighters from across the world.
Many Western countries have had a difficult time escaping the trap of ISIS’s propaganda campaigns. Citizens from many nations have traveled to Syria to join ISIS. Even Australia, which has been more or less immune from issues caused by non-state actors, has seen citizens traveling overseas to fight for ISIS. As in many other states, the fear of terrorist attacks has pushed the Australian government to take security measures for the protection of its people. One of the most controversial measures is mass surveillance.
In this context, surveillance means monitoring the activities of Australian citizens, particularly Muslims. It’s a discriminatory security measure by the government, as it is subjective and only targets one group. Since most of the Australian citizens who traveled to join ISIS were young Muslims, it is understandable that Muslims are the main target of the surveillance efforts. Still, it can be terrifying for them to realize that their daily activities are being monitored.
Australia is a democratic country, and its values should be protected. Human rights should be the hallmark of policymakers, but practicing large-scale surveillance poses a grave threat to individual human rights and violates the right to privacy.
The government is also using a metadata program to collect telecommunication information in advance of criminal suspicion. If someone is thought to have any relation to someone on the watch list -regardless as to whether that person should or shouldn't be on the list- all of their activities could be under surveillance.
In an interview with ABC, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who published the 2013 Snowden leaks, called Australia, “one of the most aggressive countries that engage in mass surveillance as a member of the Five Eyes Partnership.” The Five Eyes Partnership is an intelligence network that includes the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada.
Some have said that, as responsible citizens, we should comply with government’s policies and give away some of our rights, to protect national security. But there are well-documented reports which suggest that mass surveillance programs are unproductive and are an inefficient way to track down suspects.
Canadian security experts have also claimed that mass surveillance is actually counter-productive and leaves analysts drowning in useless information. So monitoring citizens’ activities and collecting personal information hasn't conclusively given the authorities leverage to prevent people from traveling to join ISIS.
Instead of safeguarding national security, surveillance has had a huge impact on social cohesion. The targets of government surveillance are becoming more isolated and often feel that they are unwelcome and treated differently. Ironically, terrorists often aim to divide communities and break down the social cohesion of the state.
The best possible solution would be to reverse mass surveillance, which fuels radicalization. The government should focus on community-based solutions, like engaging with the communities that see this practice as biased, unfair and subjective.
Young people join ISIS for a number of reasons, and among foreign fighters a lack of belonging and need for recognition was reported as one of the main causes for joining ISIS.
Instead of spending millions of dollars on the current system, the government can find more viable solutions through community engagement, which is arguably more cost-effective and can have a durable outcome that strengthens multiculturalism in Australia.
Cover credit: Unpublished Ottawa