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The price of digital surveillance

With an endless number of drones, sensors, scanners, archives and algorithms at work for governments and corporations, technologies of monitoring, securing and sorting are always humming in the background. We are starting to see a world where the watchers never reach the point of “enough” information and instead require an ever-expanding data set about our movements, buying patterns, online activity and workplace productivity.

As these systems inch toward a creepy kind of omniscience, we need to consider how our lives will change if we don’t set limits on their expansion.

Surveillance is rarely a cost-free endeavor. Surveillance changes us, sometimes subtly — more often, profoundly — as we try to manage the impression we make on social media or on security cameras. The ubiquitous eyes of these devices can shift the way we’re supposed to feel about a particular place (is it safe to use the retina scanner ATM?) or particular action (will they think I’m stealing?).

Social psychologists looking at workplace surveillance have found ample evidence that even the threat of surveillance is enough to change behavior, making workers “follow rules more carefully and act more subservient,” as well as experience greater stress, a loss of personal control and “a decreased sense of procedural justice.”

For many, surveillance forces an adjustment of our interior life, a stiffening of our feelings: Someone is watching. Better look productive. Better not arouse suspicion.

When surveillance is focused on security, especially, it can add the gnawing sense that “something bad happened here,” “something bad could happen here,” “someone is watching” or even the fantasy that “someone will save me.” Privacy, on the other hand, grants us a reprieve from such anxieties and uncertainties; it gives us the gift of what one scholar calls “emotional liberty.”

If we value liberty and autonomy, we need to have a more critical conversation about surveillance technology, one that leads to smarter legal protections of our privacy and dignity both online and off. People need to be able to educate themselves and choose not only how these technologies exist in the world at large, but also how much access they have to our personal data and even our bodies.

Right now, the spread of surveillance systems has a lot of momentum, though, ironically, they have rarely faced real scrutiny. Coming on the heels of his involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s former editor, wrote that “securicrats” in the United States and United Kingdom are working to “collect and store ‘all the signals all the time’ — that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all phone calls, texts, and emails we make and send each other.” This is the cultural logic of the present moment: making human life endlessly visible, recordable, sortable, accountable, with little regard for how this might feel to millions of people. Everything goes into the archive. No one can opt out. Nothing goes away.

Is this really what we want? As someone who has spent the last 10 years exploring this issue, I fear a fundamental human right is missing here: the right to be left alone. Too often we think of freedom in a narrow sense, that it is simply what the law allows us to do or say. But we also need freedom from the quietly oppressive forces in our world. In the case of surveillance, we need freedom from insidious kinds of supervision, coercion, expectation and obligation — all of which are rife in a world of ubiquitous surveillance. Psychologically, emotionally and maybe even spiritually, we need freedom from the conformist pressures of CCTV cameras, the psychological burdens of workplace monitoring, the anxiety of being scrutinized by credit card companies looking at our purchases or simply strangers gawking at us on social media.

Must we be subjected to the constant threat of exposure and scrutiny in every part of our life? Must everything be seen, shared, and sorted? Must everything be visible on social media, CCTV or a TSA body scanner? I hope not.

And I hope we don’t shrug and grow accustomed to ever-increasing levels of invasiveness. Even if some aspects of surveillance culture are entertaining and even humane — from the benign side of social media to the well-intentioned camera connecting us to an elderly relative — too often we are faced with something much more controlling, if not outright manipulative. In its harsher forms, surveillance is nothing more than cold prodding to suss out our commercial prospects, to determine if we’re a potential asset or liability to some corporation, alternating with the even colder scrutiny of the state to see if we’re doing what we’re told.

Randolph Lewis (randolph.lewis@austin.utexas.edu) is a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is “Under Surveillance: Being Watched In America.” This essay was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.

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