For many, the idea of government surveillance immediately sparks thoughts of vicious and opaque attacks on citizens during the Cold War, particularly in the Soviet Union and throughout the rest of the Eastern Bloc. However, I want to consider the significance of secret police as a wider topic and gain an understanding of the broad nature of these institutions in history and around the world, looking at both their role as protectors and reputation as instigators of violence.
The existence of secret police or organisations within society is usually related to a minority having authority over the majority, and the desire of that powerful group to maintain their influence. The first occurrence of an organised secret police force occurred in Sparta around the 10th century BC where they were used to repress rebellious factions. Similarly, in Caesar’s Rome, a pyramid of informers enabled persecutions to take place. Consequently, these rinsed people of their assets should they question the authority of the state. In the more contemporary era, the Venetian Inquisition and the dreaded Oprichina of Czar Ivan IV stand out as turning points in the history of secret police, as improved technology made intelligence transmission both neater and easier.
It could be argued that the FBI and MI5 could be considered as secret police forces; working for the government and guarding their operations with the utmost secrecy. The custom of secret police has become increasingly ominous during the twentieth century with the rise of technology coupled with the mounting scope of government. The NAZI Gestapo and the Soviet KGB are now synonymous with these ever powerful surveillance agencies, and they stand out in history due to their unquestionable dominance, brutality and influence.
‘Truth never damages a cause that is just’, said Ghandi. This highlights the ethical questions surrounding the integrity of these organisations. It could be suggested that undisclosed surveillance of citizens must surely be unethical, as if the purpose was morally sound then there would be complete transparency. It could even be purported that it is wrong to credit these institutions as ‘protectors within society’, as any evidence to support that claim is locked behind closed doors.
The organisations themselves, however, rarely keep their existence a secret, often using the aforementioned theme of protection and loyalty to the people as their resolve. For many, this is discredited as mere propaganda. However, there is a common goal amongst the people in the organisations to guard the values they see as being productive to society, with this, the organisations are inherently constructive.