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Mass surveillance’s existence, even without abuse, breaches freedom

Mass surveillance in the United States and other nations is on the rise, as evidenced most recently by the information leaked by Edward Snowden. Public discourse on the matter tends toward a discussion of the type of information gathered, how that information is used, whether or not to trust the government with that information, and whether the government’s practices are constitutional. But these questions aside, the very existence of the means to observe us so thoroughly is a violation of our freedom and of our autonomy.

We are becoming progressively more aware that we are being watched, not only by our government but by our neighbors. Just as the government legitimizes its surveillance with reference to the need to regulate crime and acts of terror, so too does the of Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign legitimize the trend toward a society that is characterized by observation and surveillance.

The utility of mass surveillance, both institutionalized and informal, exists not only because of how the observer may collect and use the data that is gathered, but because behavior often changes as a direct consequence of observation. To engage in observation alters the relationship between observers and observed. This notion may be understood in relation to what is often called the Hawthorne Effect: the tendency for people to alter their behavior as a consequence of the fact that they are aware of their observation. Specifically, there is a tendency for the observed to act in a way which reflects what the observers, if they are their superiors, would expect or demand of them, as demonstrated by Henry A. Landsberger in his study “Hawthorne Revisited.”

Though Landsberger’s analysis led to the identification of the confounding variable of observation in regards to the workplace, one may extend the principle to countless other relationships. Whether in students aware of their teacher’s gaze or children mindful of their parent’s supervision, it is not difficult to see the Hawthorne Effect in action. Just as the worker, student, or child becomes aware of their relationship to an observing power, so too does the citizen.

This principle was captured by Jeremy Bentham through his conception of an ideal prison, the ‘Panopticon.’ Bentham had conceived of a prison where prisoners would be visible at all times, yet they would remain uncertain as to whether or not they were being watched. Bentham perceived this setup as a “mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” where there is a perceived ‘omnipresence’ of the observer, despite the observer’s lack of true omniscience. Thus, active surveillance is not absolutely necessary; the presence of the means to observe alone is how the prison system maintains control. Our concerns about our governments’ surveillance measures should not lie in specifically who is using what data to what ends, because to recognize the potential that our data may be combed through is to recognize that our autonomy has been restricted.

Michel Foucault examined relationships of power based on systems of observation like Bentham’s prison in his book Discipline and Punish. Foucault recognizes that behavior can be modified simply by establishing a system of observation without necessarily engaging in the act or exercising force. The effect of such a setup, writes Foucault,is that it shall “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” such that it is not even necessary to always be observing the prisoners. “The inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” This “perfection of power,” Foucault continues, “should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.”

When the expanding system of surveillance is discussed, as well as the government’s encouragement of observation among neighbors, grievances are too often directed at the potential for abuse of the knowledge gathered. Or, alternatively, its legitimacy is defended by observing that the power is not abusive because its purpose is only to record the activities of potential terrorists. Yet, with the observations of Landsberger and Foucault in mind, it is worth noting that the mere existence of a structure of surveillance has altered the relationship between citizen and state, where power is in the hands of those watching. As a consequence of these developments, the presence of a system for observing and collecting data on a mass scale makes the concern regarding power and control very real, regardless of whether or not the system will be abused.

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Mass surveillance’s existence, even without abuse, breaches freedom