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Gabriel C. S. Gavin

How Important is our Privacy?

Government surveillance, its limitations and the risk to mental health.

Had Julian Assange looked out from his window in the Ecuadorian embassy in London this week, a baying crowd of photographers, journalists and bemused tourists would have stared back. I was one of them. Assange has been holed up on Ecuadorian soil in the middle of Knightsbridge, overlooking Harrod’s, for two long years. The founder of WikiLeaks, he is facing serious, unrelated charges in Sweden, from where he fears he will be extradited to the U.S. to answer for his role in the release of countless classified military documents over his website. His promise to emerge, quickly retracted, attracted global publicity. Together with Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, Assange has made government transparency this year’s zeitgeist. Amongst these revelations is the somewhat unsettling sense that data collection, in the name of national security, has entered every home. It is ironic then that, sheltering in just a few rooms and with the eyes of the world cast on his next move, Assange has become the ultimate symbol of privacy.

For some, the idea of a faceless agent of the government poring through our every work email, teary telephone call and following our every movement on CCTV is reassuring. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, my taxi driver quipped as I left the media circus behind. For others, personal privacy is something they are less eager to sacrifice. We are entering into an age when surveillance is becoming cheaper and more comprehensive. With it, comes the prospect of pre-empting criminal behaviour before it has even happened

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither”. The philosopher Ronald Dworkin has carried Franklin’s torch, summarising the war against terror as an existential battle between security and privacy. But what we really mean when we say that we want a private life is up for debate. Fundamentally, most of our lives and our communications are really rather boring. Regardless of the actual intention, when we start to view mass-surveillance as being less about catching bad guys and more about treating us as suspects, research has shown that it takes its toll very quickly.

The psychologist Solomon Asch performed a set of classic experiments, which he asked a student to participate in an activity with a group, comprised only of actors, to match the length of a line to one of three comparison lines. The confederates would all match the line up incorrectly to a line that was clearly somewhat longer or shorter. As the actual participant was sat so that they were the last to be called upon, they would face going against the consensus publicly. Over 75% gave an incorrect answer during the trials. The knowledge that other people are aware of your responses and actions clearly forces us to go against what we know to be correct and encourages conformity. Tom Tyler goes further in his essay “The Psychology of Public Dissatisfaction with Government” to argue that the increase in compliance that surveillance brings is small and far from being worth the financial cost.

A recent collaboration between the Universities of Canberra and Exeter has shown that if a leader is well-liked and respected, surveillance actually undermines their social influence and encourages reactionary behaviour. The participants reported that they shared the leader’s values when they thought their responses would be made available to him, but actually shared their values much less. The very act of checking up on our compliance seems to make us want to rebel.

As a symbol, all-powerful and pervasive intrusion into our life has the potential to form an almost neurotic construction. The fact that the system that has been implemented in many countries already reflects the kind of fantasies dreamt up by paranoiacs for decades should highlight just how fundamental to our mental health a sense of privacy is.

Whilst the exact intentions behind government surveillance are rarely made clear, it would seem that we have to balance necessity with the very real threat of destroying our sense of identity and our faith in the government.


About the Author

Gabriel Gavin is a neuroscientist at University College London (UCL) working on neuronal networks.