Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour.This is the concern of Tony Porter, the surveillance commissioner.  In an interview with the Guardian, his first since taking up the post, he suggests that too many CCTV cameras might change the “psyche of the community”.  Even if the cameras do provide extra evidence for crime; and even if they are never misused… we all change our behaviour and become a little uneasier about all our interactions in public.

Likewise with our online interactions.  The knowledge that our discussions are likely being saved, indexed and cross-referenced on a GCHQ or NSA server somewhere causes us to change our behaviour, even if we are totally law-abiding and – crucially – even if an actual human never actually checks up on me.  In The Global Chill, a major survey of writers conducted by the PEN American Center, it was revealed that anxiety about surveillance was almost as high among writers living in democracies, as it is among writers living in authoritarian states!  And a third of writers living in democratic states (where we can be confident that the government is ultimately not out to oppress them) nevertheless admitted to self-censorship because of surveillance.  The surveillance ‘chill’ is exposed.

In this important TED talk, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist that brought Edward Snowden’s revelations to the world) explains how we are psychologically squeezed by the very idea of mass surveillance, even in a so-called democracy.  Its 15minutes long (plus another 5 min Q&A) but definitely worth watching.

This is my favourite passage:

… a society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity and obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most overt to the most subtle, craves that system. Conversely, even more importantly, it is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and dissent exclusively reside, and that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.

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