Big Brother might not be watching,
but Big Tech is
If your knowledge of surveillance and security issues came entirely from popular culture, you could be forgiven for assuming that Americans live in a dystopian world of ubiquitous monitoring. Movie and television screens are filled with ominous scenes that depict a near-future of Panopticon-level observation by sinister government agencies and nefarious corporations. The shadowy campiness of the 1990s-era television show The X-Files has given way to the panicky tones of Netflix’s Black Mirror, where episodes frequently feature a range of plausible surveillance technologies that relentlessly track people both inside and outside their homes.
How likely is such science fiction to become a reality? And should Americans be concerned about the likely growth of a surveillance state that could threaten freedom and privacy?
For many Americans, the 2016 election reignited anxieties about the possibility of government surveillance; these anxieties haven’t abated, fueled as they are by conspiracy theories online and Donald Trump’s many outraged tweets about the supposed “wiretapping” of Trump Tower. Stories about wiretaps, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act procedures, and other forms of government-sponsored snooping are now constant features of our 24/7 news cycle, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate Russian meddling in U.S. elections. No wonder people are feeling slightly paranoid.
After all, you need not reach the highest office in the land to be a potential target of government surveillance. Local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have for years monitored citizens using sophisticated technology such as Stingray cell phone tower simulators, which are used to track down suspects without getting a warrant, often gathering the data of thousands of innocent Americans in the process. As the privacy watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation has noted, Stingrays “allow the police to conduct indiscriminate, dragnet searches – in some cases on up to 10,000 phones at one time. They are also able to locate people inside traditionally-protected private spaces like homes, doctors’ offices, or places of worship and can be configured to capture the content of communications.”
In some countries, ubiquitous surveillance is already a reality. As Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond recently described in The Atlantic, China is “racing to become the first to implement a pervasive system of algorithmic surveillance.” Using a combination of cameras, data mining, and artificial intelligence, Chinese government officials are constructing individual profiles of the country’s citizens, ostensibly to protect against terrorism or crime. The Chinese are innovative about the potential uses of these profiles once they are gathered. Officials are creating “citizen scores,” crafted using information they have gathered about what people buy, how they behave in public, or whether or not they have unpaid parking tickets. Why? The promise of such scoring, according to The Atlantic, is to encourage good behavior by rigorously ranking citizens: “Every Chinese citizen receives a literal, numeric index of their trustworthiness and virtue, and this index unlocks, well, everything. In principle, anyway, this one number will determine the opportunities citizens are offered, the freedoms they enjoy, and the privileges they are granted.”
As more and more people seek attention in a crowded online universe, the bar for normal attention-seeking will continue to be raised.
Given the many U.S. agencies (FBI, National Security Agency, Homeland Security, local law enforcement) that have monitoring and surveillance capabilities, should Americans fear a future of citizen-scoring akin to the one already practiced in China?
Not exactly. Unlike in China, in the U.S., legal protections exist that theoretically protect Americans from overreach by government agencies intent on surveillance. But Americans face a different and potentially larger long-term threat, one ushered in by our era of on-demand digital convenience: the many private companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook that gather masses of information about us with little to no oversight regarding what they can do with it. In other words, you should worry less about the government spying on you than you should about Fitbit eventually selling your pedometer data to a major health insurance company.
Consider the new field of “digital phenotyping,” whose practitioners use data from a person’s social media activity, phone use, and other digital exhaust to craft a picture of your physical health and mental well-being. As the New York Times recently noted, digital phenotyping is hardly an exact science. “If a sociable person suddenly stopped texting friends, for instance, it might indicate that he or she had become depressed,” the Times reported. Or it could just mean they’d gone on vacation, or succumbed to their significant other’s entreaties to put their phones away. But that hasn’t stopped technology companies from wading into people’s lives – sometimes literally. Facebook is using artificial intelligence “to scan posts and live video streams on its social network for signs of possible suicidal thoughts. If the system detects certain language patterns,” the Times notes, “it may assign a certain algorithmic score to the post and alert a Facebook review team” which then contacts the person (or, in some cases, calls the police). Big Brother might not be watching, but Big Tech is.
Some observers have praised these efforts by tech companies, arguing that they serve an important community function, kind of like a concerned (albeit virtual) neighbor. Perhaps. But a larger question remains unaddressed: What does the future of privacy and freedom look like in a world where much of everyday life – including private life – is performed online and always monitored? Already, for many people today, their most deeply intimate relationship – at least if judged by time spent and care and attention lavished – is with their smartphone. We talk with them and to them; we play games and buy things on them; we stay in constant touch with friends and family thanks to them. One study found that we touch our phones about 2,617 times every day. You don’t have to be paranoid to acknowledge that this is a pretty effective form of self-wiretapping.
Previous eras worried that the all-seeing eye of surveillance (whether practiced by the state or by an authoritarian leader) would inevitably dehumanize everyone within its reach. Today, thanks to social media and the Internet, we are both the watchers and the watched. Our world resembles a funhouse mirror more than it resembles Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century Panopticon – the infamous “all-seeing” prison design that placed a single law enforcement officer at its center, able to monitor many prisoners at once (which French theorist Michel Foucault later made a centerpiece of his analysis of prisons and social order in his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish).
And yet, the proliferation of surveillance and security technologies has not made us feel safer and more secure. And the ability to openly watch (rather than spy) on each other’s lives hasn’t brought us together as a people; on the contrary, if Twitter is any guide, it’s further divided us.
It is human nature to want to watch what others are doing (and not just other people; consider the popularity of live-feed “animal cams” available on websites such as explore.org). But as more and more people seek attention in a crowded online universe, the bar for normal attention-seeking will continue to be raised. (As reality television demonstrates, even our home makeovers must now be extreme.) And people will continue to erode the boundary between their public and private selves by performing the most intimate details of their lives online. The fact that we haven’t slid into dystopian authoritarian state monitoring doesn’t mean we’ve escaped danger. It just means we’ve traded one threat for another.
Christine Rosen is managing editor of The Weekly Standard. She is a senior editor of The New Atlantis. She is working on her forthcoming book, The Extinction of Experience, to be published by W.W. Norton. Her past books include Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and My Fundamentalist Education.
Ms. Rosen’s essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The American Historical Review, and The New England Journal of Medicine.