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Life Under Constant Watch

The surveillance state expands. Since 9-11, our phones are subject to warrantless wiretaps. Our email and internet transactions leave a trail for some to follow. The police can access our GPS location data through our smart phones, also without a warrant. Retailers record our purchasing habits with painstaking detail. Apparently, Target studies those purchases to determine when customers are pregnant—in the second trimester no less—for specialized marketing purposes.

And now, there will be surveillance drones. Congress recently passed a bill that opens the gates to widespread use of surveillance drones on US soil. There has been relatively little coverage of this alarming development: drones, so far associated with our illegal war in Pakistan and Yemen, are soon to become a domestic mainstay. On our shores, they will be used for law enforcement and border protection, but also commercially, for real estate, entertainment and journalistic purposes, for example. One prominent drone showcased on the internet is a hummingbird drone. As the name suggests, it’s tiny, quick and highly mobile. A popular video shows the hummingbird drone entering a building and flying down a corridor, transmitting everything it sees. Imagine the possibilities.

What is the effect of all this lost privacy? How does it change our behavior? Because surely it does; we are apt to behave differently when we feel we are alone or watched. What will our personal lives be like as so much more of them is made public?

In his book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that constant surveillance has a devastating effect. It’s a subtle form of oppression. When we feel we are being watched, we are more self-conscious of our behavior, more likely to watch what we do and conform to what we think the surveyors want or expect. The hawks among us say this is a good thing: if you’re doing nothing wrong, what do you have to fear from a hummingbird drone? But it’s not as simple as that.

Constant surveillance, Foucault maintained, can be a kind of torture—a revelation implemented by 19th century prison architects. It’s also ideal for authoritarian government in that it’s a highly efficient form of power: authority doesn’t need to coerce individuals physically to behave a certain way; surveillance inserts authority’s eye inside the individual, and he monitors himself. Surveillance enables power to be anonymous, Foucault says, which is especially devastating. You don’t know exactly why you are being watched, or exactly what’s expected of you, and ultimately cultivates a kind of inbred paranoia where you are unsure and timid about everything you do.

Further, Foucault suggests, surveillance that is widely established in society softens the ground for overt political oppression, because it makes us less resistant to breaches of our rights.

This thought occurred to me following the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision to uphold the right of prison officials to strip-search anyone entering a prison facility, no matter how minor the offense. In the case in question, a man was strip-searched after being arrested for an unpaid fine; his arrest was mistaken—he had already paid the fine. The Supreme Court defended the right to strip-search him anyway. Clearly this would seem to undermine our cherished notion of presumed innocence, and it grievously offends our personal dignity. But such galling invasions of privacy, and disregard for personal dignity, become increasingly acceptable when we are already accustomed to them more broadly—all the time, in subtle ways.

The political problem with all this surveillance is obvious, if we’d care to admit it. The political authorities have so much more access to the details of our lives, and in the wrong hands, could do real harm. The only thing protecting us is the character of those in power who collect all this information—and swear they will do nothing objectionable with it. Regarding the new National Defense Authorization Act, which sanctions the president’s power to detain indefinitely or even assassinate US citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist organizations, Obama tried to allay fears by arguing that his administration will use discretion and judgment in exercising this power. What about subsequent administrations? Our founding fathers were highly concerned to design a government that was impervious to corruption by the character flaws of individual office holders. The War on Terror has steadily rendered us vulnerable to just that.

What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is how we are largely unperturbed by the growing surveillance state. Indeed, we jump headlong into these new technologies that allow us to be watched. The ACLU is like a voice in the wilderness screaming about civil rights threats, but we’re too busy shopping online, sharing intimate personal details on Facebook, Tweeting our most mundane revelations.

When I raise these concerns with my students, some consider them overly alarmist. Most are unfazed. I pressed them on this recently, and one student pointed out that they were 10 years old when the Patriot Act was implemented following the 9-11 attacks. They have also spent half their lives with the internet, email and smartphones, and so, have known nothing else. In short, surveillance is their norm.

And they have known only benevolent, or at least innocuous, surveillance to date. Does this mean they trust the powers that know so much about them, and could do so much with that knowledge? When I ask that question, the response is almost universally negative. They have very little confidence in the ruling parties—and that’s a view shared by populations across the spectrum. So what’s going on? Why are we giving so much information—and ultimately power—to authorities we have such little confidence in?

There are a variety of factors at work here. On one hand, you might say, we’re just lazy, or too enamored with new technologies, to worry about who is watching us and why. Alternately, as Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor has argued, we are a society increasingly suffering from ‘time poverty’: we work long hours, commute long distances, ferry our kids to and from countless activities, and in our frenzy, have come to rely on the multiple conveniences offered by the new technology that helps us get through our frantic schedules. In general, these new media are so fully integrated into our lives that we simply can’t imagine living without them. They have gotten us accustomed to levels of convenience such as we’ve never known before—a convenience directly proportionate to the amount personal information we surrender.

Underlying all of this, however, is something I have thought about for a while. As a society, we have lost sight of the significance of privacy, and that it is essential to freedom—and democracy. We willingly give up our privacy in the belief that our freedom remains untouched through it all. Indeed, in a War on Terror, forgoing our privacy seems like an easy sacrifice, especially when you get the wondrous conveniences of all the new media in return. But freedom without privacy, Foucault points out, is no freedom at all.

The more we are watched, he argues, we come to feel less free to be unique, quirky, sometimes eccentric individuals. Surveillance exerts a covert pressure. Under constant surveillance, we are more prone to conform, less liable to ask vexing social questions that might draw attention to ourselves and upset someone—who? We are less inclined to develop our own ideas and opinions, work them out in our thoughts and words, test them in public venues—and stick to them. We become more careful, less likely to take chances and engage in risky behavior. But democracy requires creative, independent, fearless individualism.

There is no halting the progress of technology, a progress that has become frighteningly quick in the digital age. However, this in itself is no excuse to accept a looming profusion of hummingbird drones on our streets and in our neighborhoods. The surveillance drones will come, to be sure, but we must watch them in turn—and the watchers. It starts when we recall that privacy is an essential good, an inalienable and non-negotiable right, as the authors of our Constitution—in an age very far removed from our technologies—once understood very well.

Firmin DeBrabander, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore.

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