Privacy and Surveillance: Quotes on How Government Surveillance Destroys Personal Freedom

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Privacy and Surveillance: Quotes on How Government Surveillance Destroys Personal FreedomWe live in the Golden Age of Government Surveillance, as our rulers today have access to technologies that the dictators of years past could have only dreamed about. 

It’s safe to assume that everything you have typed on the Internet since 9/11 is stored on some government database somewhere, which is nothing less than an emerging form of tyranny. Those interested in personal freedom and individual liberty must educate themselves on this subject – and find ways to resist government snooping around in their personal affairs. 

This is no easy task. Indeed, it might be an impossible one. But that doesn’t mean that you should abdicate the fight against governments and large corporations accessing your personal affairs and private communications. You can and should take measures to make yourself a harder target for snoops – and that all begins with learning about just how serious the situation is with regard to unwanted eyes peeking on your private life. 

This question has been considered by some of the greatest thinkers in history. We hope the following quotes will create in you a desire for further investigation – and action.

Brian Miller
Curated by
Brian Miller

Quotes About Why Governments Surveil

“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

“When we've got these people who have practically limitless powers within a society, if they get a pass without so much as a slap on the wrist, what example does that set for the next group of officials that come into power? To push the lines a little bit further, a little bit further, a little bit further, and we'll realize that we're no longer citizens – we're subjects.”

“There are no private lives. This is what Nixon found out. ‘Course he engineered it himself, with the tapes. This a most important aspect of modern life. As a science-fiction writer, dealing with the future, I want to deal with this. That one of the biggest transformations we have seen in human life in our society is the diminution of the sphere of the private. We must reasonably now all regard the fact that there are no secrets and nothing is private. Everything is public.”

“These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.” - Edward Snowden

“These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.”

“It's very, very difficult I think for us to have a transparent debate about secret programs approved by a secret court issuing secret court orders based on secret interpretations of the law.”

“The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air… Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left: such is the capability to monitor everything – telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide.”

“By comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient. The ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas, and were content to leave loose ends everywhere, to regard only the overt act and to be uninterested in what their subjects were thinking. Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.”

“The government doesn't want any system of transmitting information to remain unbroken, unless it's under its own control.” - Isaac Asimov

“The government doesn't want any system of transmitting information to remain unbroken, unless it's under its own control.”

“In the digital space, your ‘data drug’ habit goes exponential, because there’s just so much. You can mainline this all day long. To me, there’s a psychology that’s not often written about: What happens when you have this much reach and power, and constraints of law and even policy simply fade into the woodwork… Which is made worse by the fact that you can’t get enough, there’s never enough, and there’s more coming… You’re high all the time. Because you’re plugged in. It’s now 24/7. There’s no relief from the addiction.”

“The implications for intelligence practice seem clear: if information is power, then those who master this digital chaos first, and derive meaning from it, will likely gain critical advantages. Intelligence professionals, whether in business or in service to the state, are therefore in a silent race to develop tools for mining and analyzing growing volumes of swiftly moving information and then to use it to understand the competitive security environment and help policy-makers shape it in their favour.”

Jennifer Sims, The Future of Intelligence: Challenges in the 21st Century

“This is the reality of the era of ‘big data,’ which has rendered obsolete the current approach to protecting individual privacy and civil liberties. Today’s laws and regulations focus largely on controlling the collection and retention of personal data, an approach that is becoming impractical for individuals, while also potentially cutting off future uses of data that could benefit society. The time has come for a new approach: shifting the focus from limiting the collection and retention of data to controlling data at the most important point – the moment when it is used.”

“There is now the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss – the abyss from which there is no return.” - James Bamford

“There is now the capacity to make tyranny total in America. Only law ensures that we never fall into that abyss – the abyss from which there is no return.”

James Bamford, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America

“When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning—its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders—its power over those factions is maximized. That’s doubly true if the government operates at ever greater levels of secrecy. The secrecy creates a one-way mirror: the US government sees what everyone else in the world does, including its own population, while no one sees its own actions. It is the ultimate imbalance, permitting the most dangerous of all human conditions: the exercise of limitless power with no transparency or accountability.”

Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

“[T]he essence of a menacing surveillance state, be it the NSA or the Stasi or Big Brother or the Panopticon, is the knowledge that one can be watched at any time by unseen authorities.”

Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

“Yet the supporters of the NSA have clearly been set back on their heels, and their arguments against reform have been increasingly flimsy. Defenders of suspicionless mass surveillance often insist, for example, that some spying is always necessary. But this is a straw man proposition; nobody disagrees with that. The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance. It is, instead, targeted surveillance, aimed only at those for whom there is substantial evidence to believe they are engaged in real wrongdoing. Such targeted surveillance is far more likely to stop terrorist plots than the current “collect it all” approach, which drowns intelligence agencies in so much data that analysts cannot sift it effectively. And unlike indiscriminate mass surveillance, it is consistent with American constitutional values and basic precepts of Western justice.”

Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

Quotes About People Without Privacy

“Study after study has shown that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.” - Edward Snowden

“Study after study has shown that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”

“Not merely was my own mail opened, but the mail of all my relatives and friends – people residing in places as far apart as California and Florida. I recall the bland smile of a government official to whom I complained about this matter: ‘If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.’”

“People will say it's wartime and we have a deadly enemy, and I agree with that. I was in favour of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan very strongly, but it is even more important in such a time that we don't give away power to the unaccountable agencies that helped get us into this in the first place. It is extremely important we know what the rules are and there has to be a line drawn. You mustn't turn emergency or panic measures into custom or practice.”

“Don't oppose mass surveillance for your own sake. Oppose it for the activists, lawyers, journalists and all of the other people our liberty relies on.” - Thor Benson

“Don't oppose mass surveillance for your own sake. Oppose it for the activists, lawyers, journalists and all of the other people our liberty relies on.”

“The frightening thing to me is that the creation of a Big Brother society in Britain – the society which was most comprehensively warned against this by both George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World – is actually popular. That people like these things. That they say they feel comforted by the presence of CCTV cameras. That I don’t think can’t have a horrifying level of support in the opinion polls. And this is what frightens me.

“And the reason for it is that this is a frightened society, and people have reason to be frightened. The political parties largely ignore it in reality, but many, many people live at a constant but low level of fear from unpleasant neighbors. From criminals in their street. By people they see on their way home whom they’re afraid of. And there is an enormous amount of this fear about, and there is a general decay of social obligation. There’s a feeling that you daren’t intervene in case somebody jumps on your head in any unpleasant crime that you see in the streets. This is a very, very serious problem, and people see these things as an answer. I don’t think they are the answer.

“I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we had until recently: Before conscience was destroyed, before the married family which is the basis of both private life in the creation of conscience, and authority was systematically undermined by the political parties who decided that it didn’t matter anymore, and before authority was removed from teachers, and from parents and from adults in general over the young, and before that semi-visible web of protection which was everywhere – the patrolling policemen, the park keeper, the bus conductor, the ticket collector on the train – these people were withdrawn entirely. We’re all very frightened because they’re not there.

“The CCTV cameras and all the rest of it appeal to us as what appears to be a quick solution. They will just lead us to a Big Brother society. If you’re really, really frightened, think seriously about trying to recreate the things which kept us free and safe not very long ago.”

Quotes About Accepting Surveillance as Security

“And this is not just the United States’ problem, it is a global problem. One of the primary arguments used by apologists for this surveillance state that has developed across the United States and in every country worldwide is a trust of the government. This is critical – even if you trust the U.S. government and their laws, we’ve reformed this issues, think about the governments you fear the most, whether it is China, Russia or North Korea, or Iran. These spying capabilities exist for everyone.”

“Security ... what does this word mean in relation to life as we know it today? For the most part, it means safety and freedom from worry. It is said to be the end that all men strive for; but is security a utopian goal or is it another word for rut?”

“At the end of this process, demoralized human beings content themselves to live as sheep… and, in fact, prefer it.” - Paul Rosenberg

“At the end of this process, demoralized human beings content themselves to live as sheep… and, in fact, prefer it.”

“Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

“There may be people who wish to live their lives under cradle-to-grave divine supervision, a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.”

“Surveillance returns men to serfdom. (Which is beloved by the holders in power.) The state has everything you do in their files: All the emails you sent when you were depressed, every porn site you’ve ever surfed, every phone call you’ve ever made, and every dollar you’ve ever spent. You are guided and controlled, and you have lost the skills required for decisions, and especially for courage.

“At the end of this process, demoralized human beings content themselves to live as sheep… and, in fact, prefer it.”

“Americans don't care about privacy, and the people running the country couldn't be happier.” - Thor Benson

“Americans don't care about privacy, and the people running the country couldn't be happier.”