Super surveillance makes us more and more conformists. And that's not good news

Super surveillance makes us more and more conformists. And that's not good news

The proliferation of security cameras blocks "eccentric" behavior. A limit to the freedom to experiment that takes away oxygen from the progress of communities

A law on mass surveillance passed in the Netherlands In 2013, suddenly, some specific searches on Google began to drop in frequency. To have suffered the greatest decline were terms such as Al Qaeda, jihad, chemical weapons, dirty bombs and others. What had caused this collapse in research on topics related (or connectable) to terrorism? According to the study carried out by Jon Penney of the Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, the reason for all this was to be found in the revelations of Edward Snowden on the mass surveillance carried out by the NSA on US citizens (and not only).

In a nutshell, after learning they could be subjected to surveillance, internet users had stopped browsing the net on topics they feared might arouse the attention of some overzealous government official. Better to avoid doing too much research on jihad, if you are afraid of giving the wrong impression to those who hold coercive power over us. To avoid running any theoretical risks, self-censorship is preferred.

A second study, conducted on writers and journalists always following the NSA scandal, had analyzed the browsing habits of those who search online for work, obtaining very similar results. Was there really reason to censor oneself so as not to run the risk of waking up the NSA mastiffs? Difficult to say: theoretically, it cannot be ruled out that some too many research on very delicate topics may have led to further investigations, but it is more likely that in almost all cases it was an unjustified excess of scruple.

It matters little, because these two studies aimed to demonstrate something else: how our behaviors, even if perfectly legal and legitimate, tend to undergo changes when we suspect we are being observed. It is the "frightening effects of surveillance," wrote Jon Penney, that "dissuade people from exercising their rights, including the freedom to read, think and communicate privately." Penney's study therefore statistically demonstrated the effects of online surveillance on people.

A mask of Edward Snowden, the man who revealed US surveillance techniques to the world

An army of cameras

And what happens when the surveillance is offline? When, for example, do we feel constantly observed by the electronic eye of security cameras? The topic is absolutely topical, given the recent Italian events - widely documented precisely on Wired - related to the attempt to install cameras equipped with facial recognition in the city of Como or to that of the Italian government to bring into operation a surveillance tool (also in this one with facial recognition) like real time Sari.

To all this must be added the statements of the mayor of Florence, wishing to make his city the most guarded in Italy, or those of the former Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, who aspired to put video cameras right into the schools by letting it be known that those opposed to his proposal "either peddle or take drugs". Let us therefore assume that the very strong pressures that come from every type of institution to subject the population to ever greater control are finally successful. May the Italian government, the mayors and the police finally succeed in realizing their dream of video surveillance of the entire citizenry. How would our life change, even from a psychological point of view?

"The growing presence of video cameras causes subtle but profound changes in the way we experience public spaces," reads a study by the US Civil Liberties Association. “When citizens are observed by the authorities - or are aware that they could be at any time - they become less free to do what they want - the study continues -. Knowing that we are being watched puts a stop to our behavior. We are much more careful to do something that could offend or draw the attention of those who are observing us. We could learn to be more careful about what we read and avoid dwelling on headlines that could alarm prospective observers. We could also think a little longer about how to dress, to avoid a look that could make us suspicious. Studies carried out in Great Britain, in fact, have shown that the people who seem 'out of place' are those who are subjected to the most prolonged surveillance ".

Due to the ubiquitous electronic eyes that are aimed at disseminating throughout the cities, an immigrant or a person who may still appear suspicious to the guards (maybe just for eccentric clothing) might decide to avoid walking in a neighborhood luxury so as not to attract unwelcome attention.

We could also choose not to participate in an anti-government march, if we knew that all demonstrators are guarded with facial recognition systems and therefore potentially identifiable. These are not excessive examples, if we consider that the privacy guarantor, motivating his decision to reject Sari real time, wrote that this tool "would create a large-scale automated treatment that can also affect people present at political events and social, which are not the object of attention by the police forces ".

Crimes no longer exist, technology and mass surveillance make life easy for everyone, but are we really sure that's the case?

The tendency to conformism

When we are subjected to surveillance, or are afraid of being, we are less likely to protest, less likely to distinguish ourselves, less likely to behave unexpectedly or that might attract attention. Simply put, we become more conformist. This is nothing new: "For more than fifty years we have known that surveillance encourages conformism towards social norms", reads the Guardian: "In a series of classic experiments carried out during the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch showed that conformity is so powerful that individuals tend to follow the crowd even when it is obviously wrong. A government that carries out mass surveillance cannot say it values ​​innovation, critical thinking or originality ".

Governments tend to know these things very well. And it is precisely for this reason that China is practicing total and increasingly pervasive surveillance. The Chinese government wants people to censor themselves, to comply, not to behave unwelcome to the authorities: "The idea is that if you do not know where the line that must not be crossed is, you will keep well away from it. It's basic human conditioning, ”said privacy expert Bruce Schneier.

Always Schneier, in an excerpt of his book published on the US version of Wired, explained how surveillance makes society "stagnant": "We lose the freedom to experiment new things for fear of reprisals, and this it means that these experiments - which may be harmless or even essential to society - cannot slowly become normal, moral and ultimately legal. If surveillance cuts off this process, changes can never happen. All social advances - from the end of slavery to the struggle for women's rights - began with ideas that were, literally, dangerous to claim. Yet without the ability to safely discuss and develop these ideas, and then put them into action, our society would not have been able to advance its democratic values ​​in the way it did. "

(Image: Getty Images)

The "political" value of privacy

"We still do not know which ideas today considered subversive or illegal will become legitimate political causes tomorrow or bring about positive social changes", concludes Schneier: “But these ideas are around us, and they require privacy to germinate”. When under constant surveillance, trespassing becomes extremely difficult. But it is the very possibility of transgression that allows society to progress, to innovate, to identify new forms of culture, of expression, of freedom. Not only that, transgression can also represent a necessary formative element, as illustrated extensively in the essay by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger Re-engineering Humanity. "If we designed an environment in which humans always behave perfectly rationally, then we would become similar to machines. And this should worry us ”, they say in the essay.

Forcing ourselves to always and necessarily rational behavior is one of the consequences of surveillance. An example of which perhaps too little has been discussed is that of the electronic register of students, an extremely pervasive form of control that has made a classic experience of transgression such as that of skipping / skipping / cutting school impracticable. And therefore to break the rules, take risks and face the consequences.

Citizens subjected to constant surveillance since school: is it really a desirable prospect for democratic societies? Does it make sense to create an increasingly conformist environment in the hope that adherence to the rules will increase and in exchange for (presumed) greater security? "When governments make these decisions," law professor and privacy expert Marc Rotenberg explained to Harvard Magazine, "it's like they're saying, 'We can't afford that much democracy, we can't afford that much freedom, we can't afford to trust our citizens so much, we need more surveillance. ' But the sacrifices in terms of privacy are also a sacrifice in terms of democracy: when you are under constant surveillance, you are in prison ”.

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