How Fear of Government Surveillance Influences Our Behavior
Heidi Boghosian on Self-Censorship and Expression
If surveillance doesn’t make us act differently, explain this:
The psychology department’s coffee room at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom offers coffee and tea on the honor system: users put their money in a box. The department decided to rotate different price list signs as part of a research study. One week a picture of flowers was featured at the top of the list; the next week a photocopied picture of human eyes aimed directly at patrons reading the sign.
On the weeks in which the eyes were displayed, people paid nearly three times as much for their caffeine fix as weeks when the flowers were shown.
According to researchers in this and several other studies, the gaze of staring eyes—even a drawing or photograph—changes people’s behavior. Feeling watched is a powerful tool for social control, causing people to censor their behavior and conform to what they take to be the desired outcome. security expert Bruce Schneier says the function of omnipresent surveillance is to control a population. “The fact that you won’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of pervasive surveillance.”
What’s the purpose of a myth that surveillance doesn’t change how we act? It’s yet another way to normalize ongoing violations of personal privacy. acceptance of a surveillance state numbs the desire to want to change it.
Jonathan Penney of Oxford University offers empirical evidence supporting the premise that the existence of a surveillance state results in self-censorship, fostering fear and conformity, so that we refrain from acting in ways or saying things that may arouse suspicion.The spiral of silence is related to a fear of isolation.
His 2016 study shows that after Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations (about NSA mass surveillance) there was “a 20 percent decline in pageviews on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb,’ or ‘Taliban.’” In addition to a statistically significant immediate decline in traffic for such articles, Penney found a change in the overall long-term trend in the view count traffic. That indicates not only immediate but also a long-term chilling effect of knowing the government is watching online activities.
PEN America surveyed nearly 800 writers around the globe on the impact of surveillance. Its 2013 report found that concern about surveillance is nearly as high among writers in liberal democracies (75 percent) as in nondemocratic nations (80 percent). More than one-third of writers from democracies self-censor. More than half (53 percent) surveyed said mass surveillance has damaged US credibility as a worldwide advocate of free expression.
“Fear of government surveillance is prompting many writers living in democratic countries to engage in the kind of self-censorship associated with police states,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s executive director. “We’re all well aware of writers in places like China and Russia who must live life knowing they are always being watched—it’s disturbing to recognize that those in the US, Canada, and Australia are now coming to adopt similar behavior.”
Two years after Snowden’s revelations, Pew Research asked the 87 percent of respondents who say they had heard at least a little about the government’s surveillance programs whether they had changed some of the ways they used email, search engines, social media, mobile apps, cell phones, text messages and landlines. In total, 12 percent of those aware of the NSA surveillance said they changed their behavior a “great deal” in at least one of the formats, and 25 percent had changed their behavior either “a great deal” or “somewhat” in at least one format. The reasons respondents gave Pew for altering how they use communications technology since 2013 included these:
“Somewhat concerned to look up certain information on search engines, since it may appear suspicious, even if my reason is pure curiosity.”
“I used to be more open to discussing my private life online with my select friends. now I don’t know who might be listening.”
“Can’t joke about stuff that could be taken as a threat.”
People steer away from talking about policy issues publicly or even among family and friends when they think their attitudes aren’t widely shared. This inclination is known as the spiral of silence.
Knowledge of government monitoring influences online expression, especially if users think their opinions conflict with that of the majority, according to a study by journalism professor Elizabeth Stoycheff at Wayne state University in Detroit.
Stoycheff asked 225 participants to fill out a survey about how they get their news, and about their views on surveillance. She showed them a fake Facebook page that reported on renewed US airstrikes against ISIS terrorists in Iraq. Its tone was neutral. Participants were asked if they’d be willing to express their opinion on the airstrikes, by liking, forwarding, or commenting on the page. Half received several reminders that although the answers were confidential, there was no guarantee that the NSA would not be monitoring them. Afterward, participants were questioned about their opinions of airstrikes and what they believed most Americans thought about them. They were also asked questions about the legitimacy of online surveillance by government agencies.
Their answers were consistent with the spiral-of-silence effect. The more their personal opinions diverged from perceived mainstream opinion, the less participants were willing to express their views. The effect was strongest in participants who believed that they might be monitored and that online surveillance was taking place: they answered in a more conformist way and engaged in self-censorship.
In another study, from the Pew research center, Americans were asked about their opinions on Snowden’s leaks, their comfort level in discussing the revelations in online and in-person settings, and their perceptions of the opinions of others in both settings. They found that the spiral of silence was greater online. eighty-six percent of the respondents were willing to discuss the topic in person, but fewer than half were willing to engage on Facebook and Twitter. And in both online and in-person environments, people were more likely to join in conversations when they thought others agreed with them.
Social media did not provide, or operate as, an alternative forum for those unwilling to discuss the issue in person, and respondents who thought social media friends and followers disagreed with them were more reticent to express their views in in-person settings.“If that threat is there, if you feel you’re being watched, you self-police, and this pushes people out of the public space.”
While Pew did not seek the reasons why people stay silent if they think their views are not widely held, the study’s report indicated that the spiral of silence is related to a fear of isolation. A fear of ostracization, whether by disappointing friends or by having to be mindful of current or prospective employers, strengthens the spiral of silence. The authors of the study speculate, similarly, that this fear or experience of isolation and ridicule online makes its way into opinion sharing in other, nonvirtual settings as well.
Creeping surveillance is dangerous; first it comes in the guise of protecting the populace from crime. The UK and other countries have virtually blanketed their cities with cameras to capture criminal activity, calling them “rings of steel.” With increasing face recognition capacity, those cameras can quickly help identify specific individuals. Then it leads to self-censorship and conformity with mainstream attitudes.
Many communities around the globe live under omnipresent surveillance. Journalists and human rights activists in nations with authoritarian regimes habitually self-censor. Joshua Franco, a senior research advisor and the deputy director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International, wrote on Medium: “The fear and uncertainty generated by surveillance inhibit activity more than any action by the police. If that threat is there, if you feel you’re being watched, you self-police, and this pushes people out of the public space. It is so hard to operate under those types of conditions.”
What if certain behavior was deemed unacceptable, even if not illegal? For example, during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, surveillance drones were used by the National Guard. Congress requested an investigation by the Department of Defense as to whether demonstrators’ civil rights were violated by this. The Pentagon, of course, found that those rights were not violated. But if we remember East Germany’s Stasi and look at what is happening in China today, it isn’t hard to imagine what use could be made of “rings of steel,” and of surveillance drones, in the US.
The 2014 implementation of a Chinese social credit system has been widely criticized by Western media. Local governments across China have developed a patchwork of social credit systems, some of which are run by private companies—like Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial’s Shima credit system (also known as sesame credit). a prominent article in Time, “What the Chinese Surveillance State Means for the Rest of the World,” depicts the social credit system as Orwellian with respect to free speech and human rights.
In response, a 2020 report by the Chinese consulting firm Trivium argues that the social credit system seems more experimental and banal than Western critics describe. The system is “a disjointed mix of national and sector-specific policies, municipal pilot projects, and hybrid public-private sector cooperative agreements, loosely centered around the goal of enhancing market ‘trustworthiness.’”
Still, there’s no denying that the level of surveillance in China’s rapidly developing metropolises is expansive. Rongcheng is a coastal town in China of 670,000 people where one thousand social credit points are given to each person as a default. Behavior the authorities want to deter, such as jaywalking, will cost you points, and praiseworthy behavior is rewarded with points. Fighting with neighbors detracts five points; failure to clean up after a dog detracts ten. Donating blood earns five. Punishment comes when one falls below a threshold: bank loans or high-speed train tickets become unattainable. Rewards come in such forms such as discounted utility bills, faster internet service, or improved health care services.
In the city of Chongqing, population 15.35 million, the ratio of surveillance cameras to residents is 1 to 5. Time calls it the world’s most surveilled city. In the region of Xinjiang, home of the Muslim Uighur minority, rampant use of ccTV, facial recognition software, cellular apps, and electronic checkpoints led to the detention of an estimated one million individuals in re-education centers, according to UN reports. Algorithms applied to camera data resulted in their arrest, trial, and conviction, followed by forced indoctrination, according to Human Rights Watch.
Chinese jails are an extreme example of the harm that can result from total surveillance. The Time article cites the testimony of Bakitali Nur, age 47, who often travels abroad for his fruit and vegetable export business. Nur was arrested after authorities grew suspicious of his frequent trips. He recounts being held for a year in a room with seven other prisoners, and forced to sit on plastic stools for seventeen hours without moving. Four HikVision cameras recorded their every move. As Nur told Time, “Anyone caught talking or moving was forced into stress positions for hours at a time.”
For those who believe that surveillance doesn’t change our behavior, let these be cautionary examples of the extremes that may attend knowledge of being monitored.
In his book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder reminds us that loss of personal autonomy, whether taken from us or relinquished, quickly ushers in despotism. He writes: “What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by ‘totalitarianism’ was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it.”
Excerpted from “I Have Nothing to Hide”: And 20 Other Myths About Surveillance and Privacy by Heidi Boghosian (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.