6 Insidious Ways Surveillance Changes the Way We Think and Act
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 than 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.
As Michel Foucault and other social theorists have realized, the watcher/watched scenario is chiefly about power. It amplifies and exaggerates the sense of power in the person doing the watching, and on the flip side, enhances the sense of powerlessness in the watched. Foucault knew that knowledge is linked to power in insidious ways. Each time the watcher observes, she gains new knowledge about the watched, and correspondingly increases her power. That power is then used to shape reality, and the watcher’s knowledge becomes “truth.” Other perspectives are delegitimized, or worse, criminalized.
2. Criminal activity: Every apologist for the surveillance state will make the claim that spying on citizens protects us from things like terrorism, crime and violence. That may indeed be true. What is also true is that surveillance can be used just as easily to commit a crime as to prevent it. History shows us ample cases of governments, including our own, using surveillance to turn upon their own people in unlawful ways, in some cases launching attacks that are just as devastating as those feared from outsiders.
Surveillance also turns citizens into criminals, either by distorting laws to criminalize behavior which was once considered lawful, or in breeding hostility and rebellion on the part of the populace which can lead to crime.
Today’s private contractors also have incentives to use surveillance to commit crimes outside of any political agenda. How about a little insider trading? How about stealing business ideas? How about using collected data to sexually prey upon others? To blackmail for any purpose imaginable? To sell our information to the highest bidder? For every Snowden who balks at the use of data collected for surveillance, you can bet there are two other contractors using it to enrich or empower themselves. Unlike elected officials, there is no way for us to even attempt to make them accountable.
3. Diminished citizenship: In his article, “The Dangers of Surveillance,” Neil M. Richards warns that state scrutiny can chill the exercise of our civil liberties and inhibit us from experimenting with “new, controversial, or deviant ideas.” Intellectual privacy, he argues, is key to a free society. Surveillance protects the status quo and serves as a brake on change.
We’ve begun to see this in the places where we expect intellectual freedom to be most strongly protected. Recently, Harvard University administrators were found to be spying on the email accounts of 16 deans while trying to find the source of a media leak, an action which curtails cherished academic freedom. The U.S. government was outed as spying on journalists at the Associated Press, behavior which dampens reporters’ enthusiasm for investigating the government’s secrets and analyzing its actions.
When intellectual privacy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are restricted through surveillance, powerful ideas about truth, values, and how we live are increasingly imposed from the top down, rather than generated by citizens from the bottom up. When Big Brother is watching, Big Brother decides what's best for us. Citizens become apathetic, disengaged, and worst of all, feel a loss of dignity in their very status as citizens.
4. Suspicious minds: Surveillance makes everyone seem suspicous. The watched become instilled with an air of criminality, and eventually begin to feel culpable. Psychological researchers have found that surveillance tends to create perceptions and expectations of dishonesty.
The growing mutual distrust between the watcher and wathed leads to hostility and paranoia. One of the key features of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was the notion that the inmates of an institution based on his design, such as a prison, would never be able to tell whether they were being watched or not, creating a heightened sense of unease. The tradition of secret police operatives and informants blending in with citizens prevents the watched from knowing the identity of the watcher, as does the distance of technology firms and government entities spying through computers and communication devices. All of these can breed an unhealthy social atmosphere as well as an individual sense of discomfort and suspicion.
5. Divided society: In his book, Brain on Fire, Tim McCormack discusses the class divisions that tend to rise between the watcher and the watched. Rights, privileges and power become distributed according to who has the most access to observation. The watcher groups categorize people based on who most arouses suspicion, a criterion which may be based on various prejudices or political agendas.
A watcher class may emerge which protects its interests by more watching, and more punishing and control of the watched. It increasingly wields power over technology, financial and legal systems, the political realms, and military capabilities. Those who hold power may become invisible to all but a few insiders, a nightmare scenario Orwell imagined in 1984. (Maybe that’s why sales of Orwell’s book have skyrocketed in the wake of revelations about Prism).
6. Unhappiness: Finallly, though you will not hear many pundits talking about it, surveillance tends to make us unhappy. Bentham's Panopticon was designed to inflict pain on a few (those in prison) for the sake of the happiness of the many in the community. But when everyone is being watched, everyone is experiencing pain, even, perhaps, the watcher. The brilliant German film "The Lives of Others" depicts the mental anguish of an agent of the East German secret police as he spies on his neighbors.
Some kind os surveillance may make us feel happier, at least initially. The presence of cameras on the street, for example, may give us a comforting sense of security (even though the cameras may actually be doing nothing to stop crime). But when we discover that we are being watched in ways we never imagined, for purposes we can hardly fathom, our happiness decreases. Bosses reading our email, technology firms tracking our Internet searches, and government agencies monitoring our communications for secret purposes makes us feel anxious and resentful. Systematic surveillance may squelch our creativity as we are managed to become more conformist. We come to distrust each other and our sense of unfairness rises.
The goal of using surveillance to produce a happy and stable state may well beget, perversely, the opposite: a society of edgy, unhappy beings whose sense of themselves is chronically diminished. Not exactly a recipe for Utopia.