The parallels between domestic abuse and state surveillance

When it comes to the psychological impact of being observed, we are all like the stereotypical domestic abuse victim whose every step is monitored so she lives and breathes to demonstrate that she is up to no adultery. As a consequence she has no bandwidth left to consider herself, her life and her option, whether she can actually stay out of harm’s way by submitting even harder – but still gets beaten because abuse is the logical consequence of surveillance.

When it comes to surveillance, people have scarce intellectual resources at their disposal to argue against it. Many consider it exclusively as an issue with corporations – and doesn’t even dare to condemn state surveillance. Most get sidetracked by the “nothing to hide” fallacy.

Bringing parallels from private lives is not a bad way to understand why the “nothing to hide fallacy” is wrong.

Take a simple domestic abuse situation. I have recently come across the detailed testimony of a domestic abuse survivor, let us call her Antónia and the husband Tóni.

Antónia was an educated woman with good career, middle class, well-traveled, and she married for love. Her husband was very protective when they’ve met – that is how she put it – and that appealed to Antónia. He used to yell at her for walking alone in the dark, and she found that heartwarming. He worked out regularly and had martial arts training. Antónia was smitten by it. She preferred to focus on his self-discipline and flaunted what he called his protective nature – which was really his possessiveness and jealousy. Indeed, jealousy (pardon, protectiveness) is usually taken as a heartwarming sign that he doesn’t want to live without her – and not as a sign that he regards her as his property, not a person in her own right.

Antónia considered herself very independent and modern. She kept working throughout their marriage and luckily (for her) never got pregnant. If she did, we would probably never have heard of her and what happened to her because she never would have escaped. She would be still at home with the kids, telling everyone that everything is fine, that she supports her husband, and making him excuses for the abuse.

Their marriage started to go sour shortly after the honeymoon, when Tóni had a raging fit of jealousy. Antónia was so much in love, she didn’t even understand the accusations. She felt safe from his rage because she had nothing to hide, she wasn’t even thinking about cheating on Tóni.

And then Tóni showed him that he was tracking her with her phone. He caught her visiting a friend’s place. A male friend’s place. Antónia spent the rest of the evening explaining that it was a work meeting and they all her colleagues were there. It didn’t spare her a beating, but eventually she managed to calm down Tóni with some unpleasant make-up sex and promised all sorts of things to keep the peace. She failed to ask back why exactly Tóni was tracking her phone, she simply wasn’t in the position to ask questions under the accusations. She was monitored by him – and not the other way around, so he was the one asking questions.

A victim of surveillance abuse is never in a position to ask questions or hold the abuser accountable. 

As it always happens, things didn’t get better. The accusations became more frequent, the make-up sex more brutal – but each time Antónia made herself a mental note what not to do again. Don’t go to friends’ places. Not even female friends. Don’t meet friends in cafés. Don’t even go to cafés alone. Make her path from work to home straight and quick. No diversions. And that was just her location tracking.

It quickly transpired that Tóni was reading her chats and emails as well. So she made a mental note not to message male contacts. Then not even to have male contacts. Never to mention anything personal or sensitive. She dreaded the invitations that kept coming because they could all be used as an excuse to accuse her with planning to meet someone. In the ends, she tried not to chat with anyone and blocked friends.

Eroding social ties is another problem for surveillance victims. They cannot trust anyone to adhere to the same (inscrutable) rules they live under. 

But even that wasn’t enough because one day a (male) colleague texted her and Tóni went ballistic and beat her again. She was so scared and feared for it to happen again that she threatened to sue HR because someone gave her number to the colleague.

In her trapped mind, Tóni was seen as unchangeable – and her workplace as changeable. She could easily imagine that her workplace will (it must) accommodate Tóni. HR appeared to her as the lesser resistance so she kept threatening with complaints, about overtime, every little detail that might upset Tóni. It made her a problematic person at work, especially since Tóni regularly appeared there, quizzing colleagues about Antónia and trying to catch them lying. His menacing behavior went so far that a colleague reported it to HR and then the case went to the police. The incident may have contributed to Antónia losing her job.

Antónia decided to change her number and not to give it out to anyone. But that only deepened her dependence and isolation. Having lost her old colleagues she found a new job that required less interaction with people – no clients, no contact with colleagues, no responsibilities – but it paid a lot less. Antónia was pleased because it should finally soothe Tóni’s anxiety. He can’t help it, she thought.

There were other things he couldn’t help. Like his aggression, his opinions and his womanizing. But Antónia was not the one exerting her will on him – it was him watching her every move. He was the unchangeable – she was to adjust. Antónia knew he had multiple affairs – but she only felt relief that he was at least satisfied and took his attention elsewhere. The double standards didn’t bother her because she thought she could control herself – he could not be expected to do the same.

Double standards are the bedrock of surveillance. We may try to keep rulers to the same standards as their subjects, but one-sided surveillance and reverse transparency (when we are transparent, but the power-holders enjoy all sorts of protection to their privacy) make it impossible. 

But the parallels don’t end here.

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