It is difficult to imagine a state without the possibility to apply coercion. Despite the fact that its goals and forms have fundamentally changed over the centuries, it is something which is common for ancient imperia, medieval monarchies and contemporary democracies. In each case, however, it is not an abstract "state" that applies coercion but concrete individuals and institutions empowered to do so. Presently, in Poland these are the police and quite a few intelligence agencies, such as the Agency for Internal Security (Polish acronym: ABW) or the Central Anticorruption Bureau (Polish acronym: CBA).
In order to be able to operate efficiently, these agencies shoud have the right to collect information. However, it is the law that must define permissible methods and the scope of collecting such information - not the agencies themselves. The problem is that in many cases existing regulations give them far too much leeway, at the same time failing to catch up with the fast development of technology. Presently, eight agencies are entitled to have almost unlimited and uncontrolled access to telecommunications data, offering offering detailed knowledge on how and with whom we communicate, on our networks or travel routines. Their ability to locate people via GPS remains virtually unregulated, since the law does not specify what tools may be used by police and intelligence services and in what circumstances.
The agencies have access to a more and more extensive range of information about us, and we still do not know much about them. And yet, a lack of real control exercised by the society creates a risk of abuses.
Meanwhile, they zealously defend access to the information about their methods of operation. Some agencies deem confidential even the statistical data (such as the number of requests for telecommunication data). This approach deepens the information asymmetry between the state authorities and citizens. The intelligence agencies have access to a more and more extensive range of information about us, and we still do not know much about them. And yet, a lack of real control exercised by the society creates a risk of abuses. This problem applies not only to totalitarian systems, where they occur on a daily basis, but also democratic societies, in which activities of the police and intelligence agencies should only serve public security purposes.
Nowadays, the politics of fear is a constant source of challanges for our freedom. The higher level of fear in the society, the easier it is to justify the limitations of rights and freedoms in the name of security. One of more important impulses for the development of the politics of fear was the end of the cold war. Political decision-makers and industrialists, who until that time had focused on external dangers, redirected their attention and production to internal security. Terrorist attacks of the 9/11 gave another pretext to turn the screw of security-related surveillance. As a result, in many countries solutions have been adopted increasing the rights of the police and intelligence agencies, at the cost of a dramatic restriction of rights and freedoms of citizens.
Collecting data on the entire population and profiling individuals in terms of the risk of "becoming" an offender, became one of the answers to terrorism and other perceived threats.
One of the answers to contemporary threats – including terrorism – is to be collecting data on the entire population and profiling its members in terms of the risk of "becoming" an offender. As in „Minority Report”, the police and intelligence agencies want to be one step ahead of a would-be perpetrator and seize him before he commits a bad deed. However, in doing so they rely not on the actual crime record or proven bad intentions, but solely on algorithms and statistical analysis. Various techniques that enable monitoring and spying of the web are developed and applied in order to pick out "something" suspicious, find a needle in a haystack of bits and individuals. Thus each one of us may find oneself at the gunpoint of intelligence agencies, if only an algorythm indicates that our behaviour strays from the implied norm. Techniques of automatic threat detection carries the risk of – unjustified by anything – stigmatization and exclusion of individuals that do not fit to a pattern.
We have a right to expect that law enforcement and intelligence agencies will protect us against common crime, economic scams, road pirates and even terrorism. However, security rationale should not trump over our personal freedom and privacy. Our rights may certainly be limited (only when it is neccessary), yet there are indispensable. Unfortunately, not all security-related activities pass this test. Some of them undoubtedly lead to disproportionate restrictions; others are simply ineffective, while distracting public attention from alternative solutions which would tamper with our rights to a lesser extent.
At the Panoptykon Foundation we believe that "security" should not be a catchphrase, allowing for unlimited encroachment upon our rights and freedoms. We try to introduce this argument to the public debate and shape the law accordingly (for instance, regulations that enable access to telecommunications data), both in Poland and the European Union. We warn against such legal changes that only serve the convenience of public authorities or the making of political capital. We demand that law be created on the basis of evidence and in response to objective social needs. We collect and share data on the functioning of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Shortly speaking, we try to control the controllers.