Commentary

The asymmetry of power between surveillant and surveilled

Without a more robust understanding of information and power dynamics, people have no concept of why exactly surveillance is detrimental to freedom – even if they have nothing to hide.

There was once a mother, a social scientist by trade, who put a baby monitor in her infant son’s bedroom, complete with a camera. When her son was old enough to understand she explained to him that there is a camera and mommy can see everything. She also told her son that he can have the camera removed at any time, he just had to ask. As the years went by, she repeated this to her son to make sure that he got it, and she came to wonder how long it would take for her son to grow a sense of privacy.

The boy was in his teens and still didn’t ask for the camera to be removed. Eventually it was the mother who grew concerned. In the end she removed the camera from his room to avoid damaging him somehow.

It is not very surprising. People take the most dreadful abuse as normal if they grow up in it and a camera doesn’t even beat you, so people can hardly put a finger on why it would be abuse to monitor someone’s every step. Having equated ‘secret’ with ‘bad intention’ made people unable to even begin to argue against surveillance. After all, how would the son explain the reason of why he suddenly doesn’t want a camera over his bed? Sorry, mom, I want to start masturbating now?

People are conditioned – and condition themselves – to fixate on the potential benefits of surveillance. They don’t (or don’t dare to) think about the effect surveillance has on the entity conducting the surveillance. Even though the corrupting effect on the surveillant is inevitable – while the positive outcomes of surveillance are a possibility at best.

We all regard surveillance as something our good, caring, loving mother does in our own best interest. But it is rarely Mother Angela and her men on the other side of the camera. It is often abusive Daddy Orbán and his enforcers. And what they enforce is different, too.

And even if the surveillant were a caring, loving Mommy, it wouldn’t take long before the sheer availability of information about us would pervert her into trying to use that power against us. To impact, manipulate, blackmail us. To accuse us. And since we are not coordinated – while state surveillance is – to divide us.

Because opportunity creates the thief – and data creates the stalker.

When it comes to surveillance, people’s mind immediately jumps to heart-warming scenes from TV shows where surveillance helps to stop a nasty, nasty terrorist. If anything, the showrunners make us impatient for surveillance to be faster and deeper, because the pretty victim is about to fall prey to the nasty, nasty criminal and only the good-good police can stop it. These shows are designed with that goal in mind (and often enjoy the financial support of law enforcement).

In the show Criminal Minds, for instance, surveillance is personified as this cute, harmless lady. How can we not root for her to find out on time who came second at every single county chess championship between 1987-2009 and which one of those men also has a criminal record and a niece called Susan? And is currently residing in a motel near a construction site that uses asbestos? She has to find out fast or else the serial killer will kill yet another cute, blond victim! The police cars are dashing through the city, teh cute hacker’s polished fingernails are furiously clacking away at the keyboard, and the killer is closing in on his next victim. How can we not hate obstruction to state surveillance when it apparently kills serial killer victims?

People are discouraged to think about (and trying hard to avoid thinking about) the inevitable corruption of law enforcement that stems from the legal submission of citizens to surveillance. Just try to discuss it, they will get really mad. At you.

Does surveillance enforce morality, the law, or only the will of the one conducting surveillance? 

Society seems to think that the only thing one could possibly want to hide is criminal intent – but states can make anything criminal. Most importantly disagreeing about who should hold the power in the state.

But Western citizens in particular have no concept of their state turning against them, even though their ancestors were forced to escape such state harassment. But collective memory is really short, so they need something even they can understand. And that is domestic abuse.

In the scary story of Antónia, an abused wife who was under constant surveillance by her husband, the victim had nothing to hide, no intention of having sex or even flirting with another male, let alone leaving her husband. And yet, she had to spend her days constantly proving that she has no intention, altering her behavior.

And more importantly, she was in no position to ask the surveillance to stop. She may have thought it was bad (unlike the teen who grew up into the presence of surveillance) but she could not argue for it to stop without being accused of adulterous intent.

And the same applies to society that has no mental defenses against surveillance – people may even attack the individuals and organizations fighting for privacy, accusing them of protecting criminals.

But the problem with surveillance is not that it might catch a terrorist. Not even that it might not. If face recognition software wasn’t racist, it should shouldn’t be allowed.

The problem with surveillance is the effect it has on both observer and observed.

Firstly, since information is a commodity or asset, it is a profound un-equalizer. Having information over others while they are blind to us is one of the most unfightable modes of power. The future of aristocracy will be people exempt from surveillance, much like they are now de facto exempt from the law. Privacy is even better than impunity because it is – by definition – less visible. You can’t fight what you don’t know exists.

Information can serve as an un-equalizer even between legal equals – and the state is not our legal equal by any measure. If our civil liberties are not observed, the state is in fact the worst threat for humans and the greatest mass murderer of history. And privacy ought to be such a civil liberty, limiting the government.

Secondly, and more importantly, surveillance corrupts both the victim and the perpetrator of surveillance. The victim will have one more reason to resign into submissiveness, and enforce it on his peers. The perpetrator will be corrupted by the tools he now has at his disposal.

People underestimate how information that gets into their head affects them. They also have no concept of information being an asset, it is only just trickling down now that corporations have amassed an obscene amount of it, unobstructed, and only they know how much and what. But it is a telling sign that people are still only afraid of corporations abusing their data – not states. Even though states have a long track record of doing just that and we have no defense against them – while we have (theoretically) the state to fight back against corporations.

Thirdly, surveillance destroys individual perspectives and replaces it with second guessing the surveillant’s interests and intentions. 

And losing sight of our own, individual perspective is a hallmark of authoritarian submission.

And sooner or later the thing that surveillance enforces will not be the right behavior, not even the legal behavior. It will be the continued rule of those in power, the Party (whether it calls itself communist or not), the leader, the gang.

The post continues.

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