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I Spy With My Little Eye

The origins and effects of mass surveillance.

Banksy / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

One Nation Under CCTV

Source: Banksy / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Our contemporary moment brings us many examples of interest in—if not preoccupation with—surveillance practices. Songs such as “Private Eye” by Hall & Oates, “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, and “Electric Eye” by Judas Priest all consider issues of surveillance. The Truman Show examines a man who has spent his entire life as the unintentional star of a program named after him in which he is filmed 24/7, year after year, as the public views the live feed. Other movies focus on the powers of universal surveillance such as Fast & Furious 7, The Dark Knight, and The Circle. Literature also explores widespread surveillance potentialities like the Eye of Sauron appearing in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and 1984 by George Orwell. 1984, of course, is famous for giving us the term Big Brother. Television shows utilizing surveillance as a central feature include Candid Camera, Punk’d, Big Brother, Cheaters, and Wisdom of the Crowd. In response to the assertion that “we have this thing called privacy,” Jeffrey Tanner from Wisdom of the Crowd replies, “we gave that up a long time ago so that we could watch cat videos on our phone.”

Although the tipping point may have been when we embraced the Internet and smartphones, the roots of mass surveillance extend much deeper. Classical mythology has plenty of examples. Heimdall is the Norse god of light, security, and surveillance. He requires little sleep, his eyesight is so powerful that can he see hundreds of miles, and his hearing is so sensitive that he hears grass growing. The Ear of Dionysus—the tyrant, not the god—was supposedly used as a prison and its unique acoustical properties allowed the guards to hear anything and everything said by the prisoners. Argus Panoptes was a giant from Greek mythology who never slept but kept constant watch with his one-hundred eyes.

Panoptes lends his name to the panopticon (“all-seeing”), a type of building designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 19th century. The design of the building allows a single watcher to observe all inhabitants. Bentham intended the design to be applicable to prisons, hospitals, schools, and other institutional buildings. The intended effect is that of the feeling of complete and constant surveillance on the part of all who may be watched. Although that degree of monitoring is impossible, the effect is the same: while everyone knows they cannot all be watched all the time simultaneously, everyone also knows that there is always the possibility that any of them can be watched at any given time. Thus, they are encouraged to engage in self-monitoring and self-corrective behavior.

For more than 75 years researchers have known that surveillance and monitoring encourages conformity and this phenomenon is still examined today. For example, a 2016 study titled “Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use” by Jon Penney found that conformity can increase significantly after being reminded of potential mass surveillance, such as the 2013 revelations by former CIA agent and whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. After Snowden’s announcement, there was a 20 percent decline in Wikipedia page views regarding articles on terrorism. People were too fearful of attracting the government’s attention and subsequently altered their behavior accordingly. Sadly, this fact is not new. The Hawthorne studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s describe the state in which individuals modify their behavior in response to their awareness that they are being observed. Although knowing one is being monitored occasionally leads to unusual and outlandish behavior, generally people rein in their behavior and make more of an effort to follow external rules—the rules of whoever they think is watching them.

Such monitoring reproduces the sense of a remote universal watcher observing, recording, assessing, and rewarding/punishing our behavior. This monitoring extends beyond the buildings and structures that Bentham had in mind. For example, CCTV (closed-circuit television or video surveillance) has the same effect as does the possibility that law enforcement may lie wait around the next turn or may even be watching us now as we consider how much or if to speed.

But how does this type of continuous monitoring affect us psychologically? Over long periods of time it can cause significant increases in stress and anxiety levels. Even when we are willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy to feel safer, there are still negative psychological effects of mass surveillance. Not only does it increase stress and anxiety, it also decreases trust in those around us. For example, when an individual identifies with a leader, his or her trust in that leader will significantly decrease after finding out that he or she was under surveillance. Furthermore, research has shown that feeling a threat of possible surveillance, people will actively avoid writing or talking about sensitive or controversial subjects, subsequently halting the development of progressive ideas. Our fascination with the idea of security and surveillance has persisted generation after generation, and with every cat video we watch, we might be losing a little bit more of our privacy.

More from A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., and William Nesbitt, Ph.D.
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