By Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D., published on September 2, 2014 - last reviewed on November 14, 2016
Every day, nearly everywhere I go, I'm being followed. That's not paranoia. It's a fact. Consider:
Thirty years after 1984, Big Brother is here. He's everywhere. In many cases, we've invited him in. So the question we have to ask now is, How does this constant surveillance affect us and what, if anything, can we do about it? "Get over it."
There's no question our privacy has been eroded with the help of technology. There's also little question that those most responsible aren't much inclined to retreat. As Scott McNealy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, famously said: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."
Privacy is an intangible asset. If we never think about it, we may not realize it's gone. Does it still matter? Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and the author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, insists that it does. "We cannot afford to just 'get over it,' for nothing short of our self-custody seems to be at stake," he says. "At its heart, this is about our psychological autonomy and the maintenance of some semblance of control over the various little details that make us us."
In the modern surveillance environment, with so much personal information accessible by others—especially those with whom we have not chosen to share that information—our sense of self is threatened, as is our ability to manage the impression others have of us, says Ian Brown, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.
If people treat us differently based on what they have discovered online, if the volume of data available about us eradicates our ability to make a first impression on a date or a job interview, the result, Brown believes, is reduced trust, increased conformity, and even diminished civic participation. The impact can be especially powerful when we know that our information was collected and shared without our consent.
To be sure, we are responsible for much of this. We're active participants in creating our surveillance record. Along with all of the personal information we voluntarily, often eagerly, share on social networks and shopping sites—and few of us take advantage of software or strategies to limit our digital footprint—we collectively upload 144,000 hours of video footage a day to YouTube. And with tech enthusiasts trumpeting personal drones as the next hot item, we may soon be equipped to photograph ourselves and, just as easily, our neighbors, from above.
Most of us try to curate the public identities we broadcast—not only through the way we dress and speak in public, but also in how we portray ourselves on social-media platforms. The problem arises when we become conscious that uninvited observers are also tuning in. "The most fundamental impact surveillance has on identity," Brown says, "is that it reduces individuals' control over the information they disclose about their attributes in different social contexts, often to such powerful actors as the state or multinational corporations." When we discover that such entities—and third parties to which our information may be sold or shared—make decisions about us based on that data, our sense of self can be altered.
There are existential threats to our psyches in a world where nothing we do can be forgotten, believes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute. His book, delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, relates the experiences of people whose lives were negatively affected because of information available about them online.
In 2006, for example, psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar drove from his Vancouver home to pick up a friend flying in to Seattle. At the United States border, which Feldmar had crossed scores of times, a guard decided to do an Internet search on him. The query returned an article Feldmar had written for an academic journal five years earlier, in which he revealed that he'd taken LSD in the 1960s. The guard held Feldmar for four hours, fingerprinted him, and asked him to sign a statement that he had taken drugs almost 40 years earlier. He was barred from entry into the U.S.
Aboujaoude relates the story of "Rob," a nurse in a public hospital emergency room chronically short on staff. His willingness to fill in when the ER needed extra hands led to significant overtime pay. When a website published an "exposé" of seemingly overpaid public employees, Rob's name and salary were posted as an example. He was then hounded by hate mail—both paper and electronic. People called his house, and his daughter was harassed at school. Eventually the stress and constant criticism made him feel as if he were becoming paranoid and led him to Aboujaoude as a therapy patient.
The ability to forget past events, Mayer-Schönberger says, or at least to let them recede in our minds, is critical for decision making. Psychologists often note that our ability to forget is a valuable safety valve. As we naturally forget things over time, we can move on and make future choices without difficult or embarrassing episodes clouding our outlook. But when our decisions are tangled up in the perfect memory of the Internet—when we must factor in the effect of our online footprint before every new step—"we may lose a fundamental human capacity: to live and act firmly in the present," he says.
The result can be demoralizing and even paranoia-inducing. Lacking the power to control what, when, and with whom we share, Mayer-Schönberger explains, our sense of self may be diminished, leading to self-doubt internally and self-censorship externally, as we begin to fixate on what others will think about every potentially public action and thought, now and in the future.
Under normal circumstances, the passage of time allows us to shape our narrative, cutting out or minimizing less important (or more embarrassing) details to form a more positive impression. When we can't put the past behind us, it can affect our behavior and intrude on our judgment. Instead of making decisions fully in the present, we make them while weighed down by every detail of our past.
The effects are not trivial. A range of people, from a long-reformed criminal seeking a fresh slate to a sober former college party girl in the job market, can find that the omnipresence of public records and posted photos permanently holds them back. At its worst, these weights can inhibit one's desire to change. If we can never erase the record of one mistake we made long ago, if we're convinced it will only continue to hinder our progress, what motivation do we have to become anyone different from the person who made that mistake? For that matter, why bother moving beyond conflicts with others if the sources of those disputes remain current online? With easily accessible digital reminders, bygones cannot be bygones.
It's no accident that the most successful legal campaign yet against permanent digital records hinges on "the right to be forgotten."
A Spanish lawyer, Mario Costeja González, sued Google over search results that prominently returned a long-ago news article detailing a government order that he sell his home to cover unpaid debts. The European Court of Justice ruled in his favor, asserting, based on an older legal concept allowing ex-convicts to object to the publication of information related to their crimes, that each of us has the right to be forgotten. Even if the information about the man's foreclosure is true, the court ruled, it is "irrelevant, or no longer relevant," and should be blocked from Google's (and other browsers') searches.
Google is now working to implement a means for European users to request that certain information be removed from their searches, a process it is finding to be more complicated than many observers had imagined. No similar verdict has been handed down in the U.S., and privacy experts believe that Congress is unlikely to take up the issue anytime soon.
Trust is perennially strained in our workplaces, where more employees than ever are being overseen via cameras, recorded phone calls, location tracking, and email monitoring. Studies dating back two decades have consistently found that employees who were aware that they were being surveilled found their working conditions more stressful and reported higher levels of anxiety, anger, and depression. More recent research indicates that, whatever productivity benefits management hopes to realize, increased surveillance on the office floor leads to poorer performance, tied to a feeling of loss of control as well as to lower job satisfaction.
Outside the workplace, we expect more freedom and wider opportunity to defend our privacy. But even as we become more savvy about online tracking, we're beginning to realize just how little we can do about so-called "passive" surveillance—the cameras recording our movements as we go about our business—especially because so much of this observation is covert.
The visual range of surveillance cameras has expanded even as their physical size has shrunk, and as satellites and drones become more accurate from increasing distances, social scientists have begun to explore how near-constant surveillance, at least in the public sphere, affects our behavior. The research so far identifies both concerns and potential benefits.
We tend, for example, to be more cooperative and generous when we suspect someone is watching—a recent Dutch study found that people were more likely to intervene when witnessing a (staged) crime if they knew they were being watched, either by others or by a camera. But we don't become more generous of spirit. Pierrick Bourrat, a graduate student at the University of Sydney, and cognitive scientist Nicolas Baumard of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, recently published a study on how we judge other people's bad behavior. They found that when subjects believed they were being watched, they rated others' actions more severely. A possible explanation: When we think we're being observed, we adjust our behavior to project an image of moral uprightness through harsher-than-usual judgment of others.
But adjusting our behavior in the presence of cameras to project an image aligned with presumed social norms can have a downside. The Oxford Internet Institute's Brown sees a cooling effect on public discourse, because when people think they're being watched, they may behave, consciously or not, in ways that comply with what they presume governmental or other observers want. That doesn't mean we trust the watchers. A recent Gallup poll found that only 12 percent of Americans have "a lot of trust" that the government will keep their personal information secure; we trust banks three times as much.
What would happen if we really tried to root out all of the surveillance in our life and took action to erase ourselves from it? We think such knowledge would equal power, but it may just bring on paranoia. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin tried for a year to prevent her life from being monitored. She used a disposable cell phone. She installed encryption software on her email accounts. She even developed a fake identity ("Ida Tarbell") to prevent her online and commercial activities from being tied to her true self.
Angwin detailed these efforts in her book, Dragnet Nation, which, while ultimately hopeful, relates a draining journey during which she lost trust in nearly every institution that holds her data. Even with her resources and single-mindedness, Angwin could achieve only partial success: Her past personal data, after all, were stored in bits and pieces by hundreds of brokers that traffic in information, and she had no means of turning back the clock.
The efforts also affected her worldview: "I wasn't happy with the toll that my countersurveillance techniques had taken on my psyche. The more I learned about who was watching me, the more paranoid I became. By the end of my experiment, I was refusing to have digital conversations with my close friends without encryption. I began using my fake name for increasingly trivial transactions; a friend was shocked when we took a yoga class together and I casually registered as Ida Tarbell."
Modern surveillance does have some clear benefits. Cameras in public spaces help the authorities detect crime and catch perpetrators, though they catch us in the dragnet as well. Cell phone tracking and networked late-model cars allow us to be found if we become lost or injured, and mapping apps are incredibly useful for directing us where we want to go. These features save lives—but all of them constantly transmit our location and generate a precisely detailed record of our movements. Our social media history helps providers put the people and content we prefer front and center when we log on, and our online searches and purchase records allow marketers to offer us discounts at the places we shop most, all the while collecting data on our personal preferences and quirks. Given the difficulty of completely avoiding the monitoring, it may be somewhat reassuring to acknowledge this tradeoff.
Laura Brandimarte of Carnegie Mellon University and her colleagues have studied people's willingness to disclose personal information. They found that when entities give people more control over the publication of their information, people disclose more about themselves—even if it is also clear that the information will be accessed and seen by others more often than it currently is.
Their work demonstrates the concept of illusion of control. In many situations, we tend to overestimate the control we have over events, especially when we get cues that our actions matter. The risk to our private information comes not just from what we've shared but from how much of it is sold or made available to others. And yet when we feel that we have been given more control over our information's dissemination, our privacy concerns decrease and our disclosure increases, even though that apparent control does not actually diminish the possibility that our data will be shared. "The control people perceive over the publication of personal information makes them pay less attention to the lack of control they have over access by others," Brandimarte says.
In other words, we are simply not very sophisticated when it comes to making choices about what to share.
When it comes to privacy-protection, the first issue for social-media users to grapple with is inertia: According to a range of surveys of U.S. Facebook users, for example, as many as 25 percent have never checked or adjusted their privacy settings to impose even the most basic restriction on their postings: not making them public.
There is a growing availability of privacy fixes for homes, cell phones, and computers. Whether they will be able to keep up with tracking mechanisms is unclear. But evidence suggests that even if they work as advertised, we may not be savvy enough to use them.
So we have limited options to protect our privacy, and few of us take advantage even of those. What's the ultimate cost? Aboujaoude argues that our need for privacy and true autonomy is rooted in the concept of individuation, the process by which we develop and maintain an independent identity. It's a crucial journey that begins in childhood, as we learn to separate our own identity from that of our parents, and continues through adulthood.
Many psychologists emphasize that maintaining self-identity requires a separation from others, and Aboujaoude believes that, in today's environment, control over personal information is a critical piece of the process. "You are a psychologically autonomous individual," he says, "if you have the option to keep your person to yourself and dole out the pieces as you see fit." And who do we become if we don't have that option? We may soon find out.
When we worry about who might be watching us, we tend to focus our concern on Facebook, the NSA, or marketers. But we may want to consider our own partners as well.
Sue Simring, an associate professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work and a psychotherapist with four decades of experience working primarily with couples, says the ease with which people can now monitor each other has radically changed her work. "It used to be that, unless you literally discovered them [in flagrante], there was no way to know for sure that people were having an affair," she says.
When spouses stray today, their digital trail inevitably provides clues for the amateur sleuth with whom they share a bed. Simring describes one case in which a man had carried on an affair for years while traveling for work. He managed to keep it secret until a technical glitch started sending copies of his text messages to his wife's iPad.
But the easy availability of tools to track a partner can cut both ways. In the case of another couple that Simring worked with, the husband was convinced that his wife was having an affair. Determined to catch her, he undertook increasingly complex and invasive surveillance efforts, eventually monitoring all of her communications and installing spy cameras in their home to catch her in the act. The more he surveilled, the more his paranoia grew. It turned out that the wife was not having an affair, but because of the trauma the husband's surveillance caused her, she ended the marriage.