Commentary

The parallels between domestic abuse and state surveillance – Part 2.

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.

But still gets beaten.

Double standards are the bedrock of surveillance. They don’t just cause double standards, they originate from it.

We may try to keep rulers to the same standards as their subjects, but one-sided surveillance and reverse transparency make it impossible. Against the principle that those of us who hold the seats of power should be held to higher standards – stands the reality that they turned the tables completely and made us completely transparent, while they enjoy all sorts of privacy because they need that, you know, to do all the good things they do up there.

And we can’t really fight back because we are so overburdened with the surveillance that is raining down on us. We can’t buy a car without someone accusing us with “where did you get that money from?” – while our politicians can buy private jets and private islands and they insist that they need privacy because…

And it all stems in the asymmetry of power of surveillance.

It works much the same way as domestic abuse. Back to our example of how a victim of surveillance will use up all her resources just to stay out of punishment’s way: things got even worse when the abuser got access to state surveillance tools over his victim.

With time, Tóni left the hospitality industry and found his calling in law enforcement. That was really a good fit with his attitude. Posing as protector, righteous, powerful, with the law behind him – or at least the power of the state. It made the domestic situation worse because he now had access to the state’s data on Antónia as well as his usual forms of surveillance. He could even brag how many things he could check and about how many people. He made a lost of all her relatives, friends, their legal addresses, their phone numbers, looked at their social media and whatever else he could find.

But all his wife could think of was how to keep the peace, how to avoid the next outburst.

It ended one day when Antónia ran into road works on her way home. By that time she was extremely keen on always following the same path home, always being on time – so as to avoid being accused of cheating or meeting other people. But when she had to stop and turn around at the road block, she burst into tears. In a fraction of a second it crossed her mind that Tóni will see this maneuver, that there was no way she can find another way home and be on time, that her diversion from the usual path will be another red flag, and she will probably beaten and raped at home before she could convince Tóni that it was the road works making her take a detour.

After leaving with just the clothes she was wearing, she also had to leave her job because he was harassing them for information about her. Her friends also came under attack, even ones she hasn’t met in years. Her family was physically threatened, but authorities were not very interested. Antónia didn’t know if it’s because of Tóni’s work. She didn’t know anything about him, what he did, what he had access to, what the state had access to, nothing. The asymmetry of information power was nearly fatal.

She had to hide but not appear in any official address registry. Without that she found it difficult to find a job – but even a new job would be registered with social security and Tóni would quite likely work to find that out. He often bragged how little anyone cared about who looked up and what, all he had to do was feigning care for his girlfriend to let them look her up.

She considered changing her name, but even that would leave a mark in the system and the address she would have to provide to have her new papers sent would be definitely staked out. Her new email address she gave to the unemployment office was immediately used by Tóni to threaten her and to show her he knows everything. She makes any move that hits authorities, gets a ticket, needs a new green card, gets into hospital – he will know. He claimed that if she tried to leave the country, she would be arrested – leaving her speculate what he did to her data behind her back.

In the scary, but extremely common story of Antónia, she had nothing to hide, she didn’t even have an intention of ever having anything to hide, she had no intention of having sex or even flirting with someone, let alone leaving her husband. And yet, she had to spend her life constantly proving that she has no intention, altering her behavior – and then her thinking.

The sheer fact of surveillance, knowing that he knows, is an unequal power balance. Surveillance is not to find out whether there is anything wrong. It is to let the victim know that they are being watched. It is control.

Being watched alters behavior and eventually the thinking of the victim.

First the victim’s mind is filled with concern on how not to appear suspicious, filling her life. Then the mental routine spills over into her thinking and she knows his thoughts better than her own, takes his interests and whims more at heart then her own, she even forgets what her own interests are.

What doesn’t happen in the meantime, is turning the tables and holding the entity conducting the surveillance responsible. In our minds the entity that is allowed to surveil and monitor us becomes an unchangeable fact of nature, while we internalize its perceived will and carry it out in our own interest. Our interest being that we don’t want to be beaten.

But domestic violence via surveillance is just between two people. When the observer is the state but the observed masses are uncoordinated (and become more so because the surveillance itself breaks down social capital and trust), the power imbalance becomes even more jilted.

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