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Glenn Greenwald: How America's Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear

Once the government is able to monitor everything we do and say, we will be unable to fight back.

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It’s only when you know that you can explore without external judgment, or when you can experiment without eyes being cast upon you, that the opportunity for creating new paths comes and there are all kinds of fascinating studies that  prove this to be the case. There are psychological studies where people have sat down at their dinner tables with their family members and friends talking for a long time in a very informal way. Then suddenly one of them pulls out a tape recorder and puts it on the table and says, “I’m going to tape-record this conversation just for my own interest. I promise I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m not going to show it to anybody, no one’s going to hear it, I’m just going to tape-record it because I like to go over all of the wisdom that you give me.”

And it’s an experiment to psychologically assess what the impact of that is. And invariably, what happens is, people who are now being recorded radically change their behavior. They speak in much more stilted sentences, they try and talk about much more high-minded topics, they are much stiffer in their expression of things because they now feel that they are being monitored. There was a pilot program in Los Angeles six or seven years ago that was in response to a couple of exaggerated news stories about rambunctious school children, elementary school children, on buses that were apparently being bullying and abusing other students.

The solution that they came up with was, they were going to install surveillance cameras in every single public school bus in Los Angeles county, which is the second or third largest county in the United States. The response, when it was ultimately disclosed, was well, this is going to be extraordinarily expensive! How can you have tens of thousands of working surveillance cameras with people monitoring them, recording them, every single day for every school bus in LA county? The answer that they gave was, Oh no, we’re not going to have working cameras in these buses, there may be a few buses that have working cameras, just so nobody knows which buses have those. We’re going to have faux cameras, because we know that if we put cameras up, even though they're not working, that will radically change the behavior of students.

In other words, we are training our young citizens to live in a culture where the expect they are always being watched. And we want them to be chilled, we want them to be deterred, we want them not to ever challenge orthodoxy or to explore limits where engaging creativity in any kind. This type of surveillance, by design, breeds conformism.  That’s its purpose. that’s what makes surveillance so pernicious.

The last point I want to make is this. One of the points about the Surveillance State, one of the things that happens is that, the way in which it affects how people think and behave is typically insidious. It’s something that is very potent and yet it’s very easy to avoid understanding or realizing. Now sometimes people do know about the effects of the Surveillance State and the climate of fear it creates.

I went on a book tour last October and early November and I went to 15 different cities and in each of the cities, I honestly didn’t really care about the book events, I was much more interested in going to the Occupy camps in each city. It was much more enlightening.

One of the things that would happen is -- literally almost the entirety of my book tour was taken up by taking about the Occupy movement.  It’s what everybody was thinking about, they had written many times that it was by far the most significant political development in many years, and I still think that. Everywhere I’d go to talk about the Occupy movement, literally all the time I would get people who would say things like (and I would be on radio shows, and I’d get calls that say this), like, "look, I’m really supportive of the Occupy movements. I want to go down there and be a participant in it, but I’m a woman who has a small baby. Or, I’m a man who has a bad leg, and given all the police abuse that’s taking place there and all the infiltration, I’m just afraid of going and participating in these movements."