Jan 17, 2014

Societal Acceptance of Surveillance by Andrew Anson

The surveillance age is upon us, and it has been rising steadily with the progress of technique and technology. Privacy can now be removed in areas once thought to be secure, such as telephones. For example, in the past a government would be considered totalitarian if it were to monitor letters sent in the mail; now it appears to be completely acceptable, and economically feasible, for a government to monitor our phone conversations. And this is happening in some places, if not here in Canada; for example, the U.S. government has been surveilling its citizen’s phone records since it enacted the USA PATRIOT Act back in October 2001(Cassata, 2013). Technology has enabled the economic feasibility of mass surveillance and societal acceptance of surveillance is leading to a state of law where governments are able to monitor its citizens. Laws are often defined by the collective rules of society dictating what is right or wrong; these ‘rules’ are referred to as societal norms. When frame-working a practical way to defend privacy in a legal manner we must analyze societal norms; if people in the aggregate demand privacy this demand will be reflected in law. Culture and its norms are derived from an accumulation of shared messages, rituals, and traditions; all of which can be influenced by mass media such as Reality TV (Hofstede, 2001). Reality TV includes such popular shows as Survivor and Big Brother. Currently, society still has the choice to defend its privacy but it must still believe in privacy’s importance. ‘Reality TV’ with its negligent attitude towards surveillance is having an impact on the Canadian attitude towards privacy. If surveillance becomes a socially acceptable practice privacy will be lost. We must begin to appreciate the value of privacy and have that value be reflected in new anti-surveillance law.

The Value of Privacy

The common argument for surveillance is that it provides greater safety for people, as was the justification for the USA PATRIOT Act. Surveillance effectively reduces privacy; so in the argument against surveillance it is important to justify the value of privacy. I believe that it can be shown that the benefits of privacy outweigh the costs of increased risk. Governments and private corporations have a bias to defend surveillance because it provides valuable information for them.

Jeremy Bentham noted the power of surveillance; he introduced the concept of mass surveillance as the “panoptic gaze”. Bentham stated that mass surveillance; the type of surveillance being realized now, is capable of giving its user “power of mind over mind.” This means that the observer can have a drastic influence in the lives of the observed (Bentham, 1995). Surveillance is an essential part of discipline. Michel Foucault discusses "disciplinary power" which is a form of surveillance which is internalized. The goal of disciplinary power is to produce a person who disciplines himself and eventually becomes docile. A person under surveillance necessarily governs himself in order to avoid punishment. This self governance internalizes the values of the watcher and is ultimately a form of coercion.

A common misconception concerning surveillance is captured in the phrase “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”" (Cassata, 2013). It was spoken just recently by the American Senator Lindsay Graham concerning the phone surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA), an agency of the United States Department of Defense.  Graham stated, “If you're not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you've got nothing to worry about". This is an illogical excuse to dismiss privacy concerns for two reasons. Firstly, it does not take into account the problem of administrative information error. This type of information error made up the narrative hook of the popular movie Brazil (1985) wherein a small typographical error led to the imprisonment of a man named Buttle, instead of a man named Tuttle. This type of error is certainly not reserved to fiction. Secondly, the statement does not allow for the progress of law and social acceptance. In a world of no privacy, power of autonomy is lost; the individual is no longer able to make illegal decisions. And often times illegal activities become legal through common adoption and acceptance, such as laws prohibiting homosexuality. In a world where people are not able to practice illegal activities prohibition laws will remain for longer. Under constant surveillance, people will fear to challenge the law. There is no freedom without the freedom to fail.

A recent article, published by UK News, demonstrates that the technology to conduct an economically feasible type of panoptic surveillance is not reserved for science fiction; the European Union is developing a program that can hunt the internet and CCTV images for abnormal behavior. An example of the application appears in the article: a fight at a shopping mall can be stopped before it even begins if the program can identify the behavior that occurs before a fight, such as arguing and pushing. The program will alert security who will go to the area of the fight and possibly prevent it from taking place (Johnston, 2009). I believe that having autonomy is more important than potentially stopping fights. People sacrifice safety for other goods in everyday situations. For example, people drive cars at 60km an hour instead of a safer speed of 20km an hour because they value the benefits of speed over the potential benefit of increased safety. When it comes to surveillance, the government claims that it is protecting its citizens, as is the case with the US government and the NSA incident; yet, the value of privacy for millions of those citizens is more valuable than (potentially) saving the lives of a very few. With this logic of safety over privacy a government could justify putting cameras in private homes to prevent domestic violence. Furthermore, people often do legal activities that would result in embarrassment, or some other harm, if observed by a third party. For example, activities such as watching pornography are acceptable by legal standards, but they are often not acceptable by certain social standards.  A person will, presumably, refrain from an activity that they would otherwise enjoy, such as watching pornography, if the person had knowledge (or even suspected) that he or she was being watched. An environment observed by a panoptic gaze lacks basic human freedom of autonomy. A free citizen should not live in a prison environment. The restriction of autonomy becomes even more alarming when discussing basic democratic rights. In a society oppressed by surveillance basic political functions are jeopardized as ruling powers can use the panoptic gaze to control the votes of its citizens (Johnson, 2008). Privacy is also an important factor in the control of personal information giving. Some argue that personal information control is integral to the definition of interpersonal relationships (Rachels, 1975). In conclusion, the importance of privacy should not be overlooked.

The Impact of Media on the Societal Norms that Concern Privacy

Television is a system of storytelling which bring images and messages into the home; these stories help build a shared national culture. These television programs, in the aggregate, build long-term exposure to a system of messages that ultimately cultivate “stable and common conceptions of reality”(Gerbner, 2002). Reality TV, with shows such as Big Brother, displays a ‘reality’ of being constantly watched, which will lead to a society that accepts surveillance as a norm. Steven Reiss states “the message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them. And the secret thrill of many of those viewers is the thought that perhaps next time the new celebrities might be them”(Reiss, 2001). In summary, Reality TV glorifies that act of being watched.

Other factors have been at work in the creation of a culture that is accepting of surveillance. These alternate factors generally focus on fear based rationales. The most important component of fear-based surveillance acceptance occurred with the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001. These attacks created an atmosphere of fear where the culture accepted the notion of safety over privacy (Pyszczynski, 2003). The brilliance of the Reality TV influence on this cultural shift is that it does not rely on fear-based stimuli. Reality TV is creating a culture where people enjoy being watched, as can be demonstrated with the recent popularity of random webcam based chat websites such as Chatroulette (Koskela, 2003) (Braiker, 2010).

The Protection of Privacy

Many people heavily fought against the introduction of closed circuit television surveillance technology. The new forms of surveillance that are more effective, subtle, and economically feasible, appear to have had less opposition. It seems that even with people that remain against surveillance the fight for privacy has become fatiguing. A recent leak from NSA reveals the mass amount of private information collected by the US government (Greenwald, 2013). The average person feels hopeless in the goal of remaining anonymous (Duncan, 2011). Users of smart phones often allow applications to track them (apparently even the app for Dictionary.com wants to have access to your location) (Cohen, 2010). And online it is seemingly impossible to remain anonymous for the non-technical user. Even shopping stores gather personal information with loyalty cards, and the practice is getting increasingly popular.

There are, however, steps that people can take to protect their privacy and websites that will help you, as a user, measure your privacy protection (Hasemi, 2012) (Purdy, 2010). The consumer through demand channels can accomplish privacy protection with concern to corporations. For example, one can stop using the Google search engine and opt for a search engine with a no-track policy such as the Duck Duck Go search engine. If the consumer market demands privacy businesses will provide those options in the search for profit. Protection from government intervention is more difficult but not impossible. A recent article published by The Globe and Mail outlines some reasonable actions to promote a more private political landscape (Foust, 2013). A significant number of voting citizens can elect a government with strict privacy policies. If society acknowledges the value of privacy, it can begin to fight for its protection.


Back in Bentham’s age to lack privacy was to lack a room of one’s own; now privacy can be removed even within areas once thought to be secure. The impact of surveillance is already being felt: in modern cities most public and semi-public areas are monitored by CCTV. You can’t pick your nose without feeling self-conscious. Reality TV pushes an acceptance of surveillance; it makes surveillance seem fun and exciting. But being observed has negative consequences. The panoptic gaze of both corporations and government accomplished through the use of modern surveillance technology restrains individual decision making and autonomy. Society has two options: it can accept being watched as a social norm or it can take an active stance against being watched. We cannot rely on any supposed “right to privacy” to protect us, but by taking an active stance the voting population of society can vote for policies that restrict surveillance and create laws that protect privacy. If surveillance becomes a social norm, privacy will disappear completely. Society today has a duty to prevent surveillance for itself and for following generations of people.

Recent events have shown that certain members of society still care about its privacy. For example, Edward Snowden, the man behind the NSA leak, cared enough for Society’s privacy to ruin his career, and possibly his entire life, to expose the mass amounts of surveillance the NSA does. But, the fight for privacy cannot be accomplished by the actions of individuals. The fight for privacy must have Society’s full support.

Hell is other people - Sartre

Andrew Anson
Being monitored in Kelowna, BC
July 2013


  1. Hey, I really enjoyed this. I had never thought about the illegal activities justification. It is a scary idea that total surveillance could prevent progress of morality. "Times change", and they change because people are able to bring about change.

  2. There's a little too much emphasis put on the idea that reality tv somehow changes our attitude towards surveillance. I wonder if attitude towards surveillance has actually changed at all over the last couple hundred years.

  3. Good comment, I think that proven the change in attitude would be impossible, or even to quantify the affect of reality tv. In this article it was my goal to change the readers opinion, and I was concerned with the readers attitude towards surveillance (which may have been impacted by reality tv. I think that society; if they haven't gotten more lenient over time, must get less lenient with the technology implications of surveillance. Bentham's original vision was a prison cell, and Foucault in Discipline and Punish, claims that this vision of Panoptic surveillance was used in schools, work places, and hospitals. But with technology its no longer an issue of architecture. Almost any public place (outdoors and indoors) can be converted into a Panoptic environment with cameras. Even more alarming is the rise of social media and mobile applications that can gather information about you, thus turning all environments into a potential Panoptic gaze.

  4. Wow, what a bunch of dung!! Maybe you should stop publishing stuff on GOOGLE(!!!!!) if you're worried about privacy.

  5. Sandra Turner will actually be published tomorrow. She wrote an essay on feminism which should get a good conversation going in the comments.

    I suppose it is odd to run a blog on Google if I'm worried about privacy. Isaac Snow, one of our contributors, has an essay in the works that might need to be private too. The only thing is that there isn't much difference between publishing here and doing print media since we are publishing the posts with our real names. We want the world to know how we feel about the subjects we write on. Saying that doesn't diminish how important I think privacy is.

  6. I came here from Facebook... I might not go back to Facebook.

  7. Thank you for this essay. I'm so terrified when essays like the on Wired that I linked below proclaim that surveillance is inevitable and actually a good thing.


  8. Many applications on our phones have the ability to gather private information, like our location. The new Facebook application may even record our private phone calls.