In the United States, government agencies have successfully convinced the public that surveillance is necessary for public safety and security. However, surveillance has some chilling effects on how people behave and express their opinions. And tech companies are playing a major role in the data collection and aggregation that government agencies use.
How The US Government Sold Surveillance to Americans
There is a marked difference between life before 9/11 and life after. After 9/11 the government can get almost any information they want if they claim that it is a national security interest. Between the Patriot Act, Prism and other legislation that empowers the government to monitor its citizens, surveillance has been woven into life in the United State – and around the world.
The Patriot Act
“The purpose of the USA PATRIOT Act is to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and other purposes”
The Patriot Act is a very broad law regulation. It allowed the government to detain immigrants without charging them with a crime, created federal funds to assist victims of terrorism, and made it much easier for the government to collection Americans’ communication records.
Unfortunately, the US government used terrorism as a way to sell the American public on the need to watch people and their communications. Simply telling people that the government is watching their every move will generally make people uncomfortable. However, if you tell everyone that this act is protecting Americans from terrorism, support will be more widespread.
PRISM is a program that involves the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting internet communications from internet service providers. Leaked documents from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden revealed that Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple were all part of the PRISM surveillance program. The NSA would reportedly collect information “directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers.”
Anytime a person uses any of these services, the government could be watching that behavior. It is perfectly reasonable that one “suspicious” Google search or Facebook message could end up flagging you as a national security threat.
Tech Companies Are Contributing To Surveillance States
According to ForeignPolicy.com, “without the cooperation of American companies— both voluntary and compelled — the National Security Agency’s system of mass surveillance simply would not have been possible.”
Government surveillance agencies like the FBI, CIA and NSA complained that, due to the move towards encrypted communication on the internet, many of their surveillance systems were going dark. However since many of the tech companies they are trying to get information from are “participating” in PRISM, this may just be an effort minimize public outcry.
In a 2003 study by Michael McCahill explains that surveillance systems gather information “which can be used in ways that are inappropriate or not in accordance with stated aims and objectives.” Surveillance cameras installed for security purposes have often been used to monitor people for voyeuristic purposes. Similarly, systems that were created for minimizing terror threats could easily shift into tools to monitor populations as a whole.
While terrorism certainly was a major social concern when these surveillance programs came to be, these ultimately could contribute to a surveillance state, like China. Through this surveillance, the government is gaining powerful information and the ability to influence elections and other major decisions.
Surveillance States Help Tech Companies
If a government is tracking all of your data about how you use the internet, people are less likely to object to private companies doing the same. When the government tracks you, you aren’t getting anything tangible in return except for maybe a sense of security.
However, tech companies sell their users the idea that their data gets used to improve user experiences and customize services to fit users’ interests and needs. The benefits of sharing data with Google are more clearly explained and disclosed, while sharing your data with the NSA just sounds creepy.
Disclosed Surveillance Changes Behavior
According to a study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, participants who were reminded of mass surveillance suppressed their opinions that they perceived to be in the minority. People who feel they are being watched are less likely to speak freely, especially when it comes to more sensitive or controversial issues.
One article, published in Vice in 2016, said “in the presence of surveillance, our country’s most vulnerable voices are unwilling to express their beliefs online.” If people can’t use online forums anonymously, because government surveillance could still determine people’s identities, political and other important discourse will decline greatly. This will enforce and solidify representation for majority opinions while those in the minority suffer.
While surveillance often causes people to conform to majority behaviors and opinions, some of its impacts are quite negative. If people know they are being watched, they are less likely to commit crimes, which will make society as a whole safer. However, according to Vice “the most significant conformist effect was from people who supported surveillance. As a result, the positive impacts may not be as great as expected. The people who are least likely to commit crimes, and who support surveillance,
The Surveillance Economy Contributes to Inequality
Unfortunately, surveillance is felt the most in communities where poverty, race, religion, ethnicity and immigration status already run rampant. Similar to the impact of stop-and-frisk policing, surveillance disproportionately impacts the subjects who are least equipped to object.
In the United Kingdom, a surveillance program called the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme combines “unprecedented levels of community-based surveillance with comprehensive and sustained focus on tackling the factors that contribute to a person’s offending behavior.” However, according to a report by the Youth Justice Board, over half of those subject to the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme were unemployed with poor literacy skills.
The populations that are best equipped to fight the mass surveillance we’re living under are the least likely to do so. The impacts of being watched and monitored constantly are least intrusive into these people’s lives.
Conclusion: We Need To Push Back Against Widespread Surveillance
It’s concerning that surveillance is now coming from government agencies and businesses. The cost of these systems is that individuals are losing power while the governments and the businesses are becoming super powerful. The data that governments collect lets increases their control over their citizens’ behavior. Businesses that rely on data use it to influence your behavior and to make massive profits. If people don’t begin to speak out against widespread surveillance, we risk being totally controlled by a few large corporations and our government.