6 Insidious Ways Surveillance Changes the Way We Think and Act
Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/ Shutterstock.com
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When I moved to a Czech village in 1994 to teach English, I was fascinated by the cultural difference between Americans like me and my new community. At that time, the oppressive memory of the dreaded Communist secret police, the StB, was still fresh. (Check out a haunting series of street photos snapped by agents in their heyday.) As a brash young ex-pat, born after the era of McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, I understood little of what it felt like to live under constant surveillance.
The Czechs knew better. Several decades under the watchful eyes of the StB (and before that, the spies of the Habsburg Empire) had molded their attitudes and behavior in ways that were both subtle and profound. They were on their guard with newcomers. When you got to know them, you might sense a tendency toward fatalism about the future. Signature Czech traits included a sophisticated gallows humor and a sharp sense of the absurd, honed by a lifetime of experiencing Kafka-esque political conditions (Kafka himself was a Czech).
Then there was that subversive streak. When you gained their trust, Czechs would often gleefully show you their old smuggled rock-and-roll records or describe a forbidden radio set up in some corner of the house. These proud tales of rebellious triumph over the StB were cast against stories of horror, like a student who told me of the day her daddy disappeared after “talking to the oven” where a radio was hidden. For most Czechs, the salient lesson of the police state was an us-against-them mentality. Only sometimes you didn’t know who “they” were.
1994 was the very beginning of the Information Age, and it has turned out rather differently than many expected. Instead of information made available for us, the key feature seems to be information collected about us. Rather of granting us anonymity and privacy with which to explore a world of facts and data, our own data is relentlessly and continually collected and monitored. The wondrous things that were supposed to make our lives easier—mobile devices, gmail, Skype, GPS, and Facebook—have become tools to track us, for whatever purposes the trackers decide. We have been happily shopping for the bars to our own prisons, one product at at time.
Researchers have long known that there are serious psychological consequences to being surveilled, and you can be sure that it's changing us, both as a society and as individuals. It’s throwing us off balance, heightening some characteristics and inhibiting others, and tailoring our behavior sometimes to show what the watcher wants to see, and other times to actively rebel against a condition that feels intrusive and disempowering.
If you think about it, “ Prism” is the perfect name for a secret program of extensive watching that will shift our perspective and potentially fracture our view of each other and of ourselves as citizens. Public opinion is now sorting itself out, and we don’t yet know how Americans will come to feel about the new revelations of spying on the part of the government, private contractors, and their enablers. But whether we like it or not, surveillance is now a factor in how we think and act. Here are some of the things that can happen when watching becomes the norm, a little map to the surveillance road ahead.
1. Shifting power dynamics: When an NSA agent sorts through our personal data, he makes judgments about us—what category to place us in, how to interpret and predict our behavior. He can manipulate, manage and influence us in ways we don’t even notice. He gains opportunities for discrimination, coercion and selective enforcement of laws. Because the analysis of megadata results in a high number of false positives, he may target us even if our activities are perfectly blameless from his perspective.