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Opening Speech at the "Surveillance" Exhibition

By Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen

19. Nov. 2009

The exhibition is an important, and also courageous memento to all of us to be conscious of and reflect on the dilemma of surveillance. It may be a vain hope as there is every indication that the Danish population really likes surveillance. 

There was a time when George Orwell's novel 1984 with its gloomy visions of the future and Big Brother watching you made us shiver with the idea that all human movements could be monitored by television screens. The shiver from 1984 no longer exists. The negative fear of Big Brother has been replaced with clearly positive expectations that national surveillance is protecting us. Big Brother is watching you has been turned into Big Mama is taking care of you

Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen is former operational head of the DSIS. Here he is on the museum's rostrum. 

As the exhibition tells us, we are today surrounded by eyes that never rest; by cameras and microphones that are never turned off. And we are participating actively in delivering electronic tracks when we are using our credit cards and telephones and when we are sending e-mails or surfing on the internet; tracks and information telling who we are and what we stand for, and which are kept because we might just be one of the culprits.

The name of the exhibition is "Surveillance". It has a positive as well as a negative ring. The word is composed of watching and over. Watching is to take care of - like the night nurse in the old days who sat at the sickbed to monitor the patient's condition in order to be able to intervene in time, or like the watchman who walked the streets in town and at the slightest smell of smoke could prevent a fire from developing disasterously. And the other part of the word over, standing over, as for instance in "he was standing over her all the time" means to keep an eye on people and constantly criticizing them if they do something wrong. Positive and negative rings which emphasize the dilemma of the use of surveillance and that there is reason to be alert and use the tool with level-headedness.

But in recent years, the fear of terrorism and violent crime combined with the rapid development within communication technology, data storage, data analysis, biometry, sensor technology which are also surveillance tools have put a vehement pressure on the citizens' basic right to the sanctity of private life.                                              

In order to eradicate any doubt about my own attitude to surveillance - or that of the exhibition - let me at once emphasize that I am not against balanced surveillance of suspects.  There may be good reason to provide the DSIS (the Danish Security and Intelligence Service), the police, and others with useful, well-considered tools for their important work of protecting us. The condition is that the tools are in balance with the existing risk and that suspicion is founded. Suspicion directed against people who through their actions have deserved surveillance. And last, but not least, that intervention against such persons are controlled by the Courts of Law.

 Since 11the September 2001 we have seen initiatives indicating that the balance is being eroded. According to American sources the NSA, National Security Agency - by some jokers called No Such Agency - is every day collecting about 2 million faxes, e-mails, telephone calls, and other signals via a dozen listening posts - per hour, mind you! A dress merchant in Maribo, a respectable citizen in every way, had a petty thousand kroner blocked under the suspicion that it was money for financing terrorism. She had paid the money via her internet bank to a supplier in Pakistan convinced that she had nothing to fear.

The "Surveillance" Exhibition: The Cold War. 

A bit more down-to-earth anyone who is paying 7,500 kroner or more at a post office to a daughter or son studying abroad - or to the Danish Red Cross or the Cancer Research Campaign for that matter - it actually doesn't matter to whom apart from the police or the taxation authorities, must show picture ID in order to get rid of the money. It just might be that you or the recipients of the money are potential supporters of terrorism. 

Anyone who is using the internet or telephony is registered averagely about 12,000 times a year. It is possible to see whom you have been in contact with and who were in contact with you. There are approximately 60 billion loggings a year. All Danes who are using the internet banking system - and we are about 3.6 million - are considered "high risk clients" and before the end of the year we will all have to hand over picture ID to our respective banks. They need to know who we are because it might just be that ...! Who is using this information? What is it used for? We know very little about this. Who is under suspicion? And what is the efficiency of the many new initiatives?   

The Danish Constitution of 5th June 1849. 

Are we safer today than ten years ago? Have we more freedom than our great-grand parents? These are some of the important questions of the exhibition. Let me just ascertain that today any forgotten bag is a potential bomb which at least indicates that we have become more afraid. But let me continue the series of questions: Are we moving away from the widely famous and valuable Danish culture of trust towards a culture of mistrust and suspicion? When such questions can be asked, it proves that the "Surveillance" exhibition is an important, strong, and also courageous memento to all of us to be conscious of and reflect on the dilemma of surveillance.

It may be a vain hope because it seems as if the Danish population "is crazy about surveillance". Eight out of ten have nothing against CCTV surveillance. And one of the arguments I hear most frequently throughout the country is: "As I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear". Most people are hiding something. Most people want to keep their private sphere and dignity. There is a reason why private life is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our Constitution. It is excellent and it is the right thing! But the problem is that if you try to protect your private sphere and your dignity, there is a tendency that this is being considered a cloak for actions that do not bear the light of day.  

The "Surveillance" Exhibiton: Telegraphy.  

It is important to remain critical towards surveillance; because surveillance is purely and simply lack of freedom. A crucial factor for us human beings is that basically we have the right to decide how to live our lives and how and with whom we wish to share information.  It is also worth noticing that surveillance makes us change our behaviour and, consequently it is to a certain extent unifying us so that creativity and diversity are not having freedom to develop and that we as human beings are not writing down, presenting, and delivering our thoughts; even if it is speech and behavior irritating those in power at any time.

If we hadn't had this freedom of thought, communication, and action, the earth would still be flat and we would still be under rule of enlightened despotism. In addition, surveillance is not only relating to the protection of democracy against terrorists and criminals. The tendency is that the state is moving towards more security, more surveillance, and more control also in other areas like e.g. the entire health department. 

Juli Zeh is the George Orwell of our time. She is a great German writer and this year she published the science fiction novel Corpus Delicti about German in the year 2057. It is a gloomy Utopian novel about health dictatorship which requires strong discipline. There is measuring equipment in people's homes registering nicotine, alcohol, bacteriological foreign bodies, and other poisonous substances. Chips have been inserted in people's bodies enabling analyses of the consumption of food. Every morning they have their blood pressure measured and report to the authorities about their sleep. In the toilets there are devices measuring the contents of gastric juice in the faeces to ascertain if people are living "the good life". It is the duty of every citizen to exercise so there is a home trainer in every house measuring how many kilometers the residents are running and sending the results to the health authorities.

This totalitarian surveillance society is not a pipe-dream. All the technological possibilities exist today, including the possibility of getting information on how many kilos of butter, litres of double cream, and bottles of red wine we are buying a year. With this dystopia in mind perhaps we should consider the assertion "if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear". Such an attitude may need a service check.   

The "Surveillance" Exhibition: The Occupation. 

The exhibition can also help us with that. It is an exhibition characterized partly by looking back on the Danish history of surveillance and partly by taking a concrete - and sometimes frightening - position on the stern reality. In this way, it points forward and creates a space for reflection and debate on how far we are willing to go. And here you are the ones to decide!

Hopefully, you will also get clear awareness that the "human factor" in the administration of surveillance and its possibilities is decisive as it determines ethics and morality in connection with responsible use of the surveillance possibilities. People are, and fortunately so, positively as well as negatively - more flexible and innovative than technology.

Let me finish by expressing my respect for the initiative taken by the Post & Tele Museum. They have created an exhibition with an edge. It is an exhibition that submits problems to debate. It is an exhibition that vitalizes the museum. I wish everybody a good experience.                  

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