A recent confluence of events has shown me the chilling effect of surveillance technologies like those used by the National Security Agency. I wanted to share some of those thoughts as an individual citizen, and hope that you find them helpful in your own reflections on these activities.
Seattle has literally had a summer for the record books – going without any measurable precipitation in the month of July for the first time since 1960, just the sixth time since 1891 (when records began to be kept) an entire month has been dry here. On these nice, dry days I often try to get outside for a run or a bike ride on my lunch hour.
In an attempt to keep better track of my progress, and keep myself motivated, I’ve been using an app called RunKeeper to track my pace, route, and progress. I don’t share this information, but rather use it for my own purposes of going faster, further, and more frequently.
Last week, however, I went on a bike ride without the app. While on this ride, I noticed some of the preparations taking place in Lake Washington for Seattle’s annual SeaFair Festival. I stopped briefly to take in the sights and sounds of the Seattle tradition when it hit me:
If I had been tracking my route – observing my behavior – I would not have stopped. I would have kept going, knowing that my movements were being tracked and logged.
While this may seem innocuous to you, it struck my as actually being quite a powerful representation of what’s happening today: the fact that observation is occuring is impacting the decisions people are making, myself included.
This is, of course, in line with both the Observer’s Paradox and Bentham’s Panopticon. The mere fact that this post languished as a draft for the better part of the week because I, as a government employee, was concerned about sharing these viewpoints further validates the chilling effects of these tools.
Finally, details are slowly starting to emerge about other government agencies using this surveillance data to falsify and fabricate events for criminal prosecution – nearly the ultimate abuse of information.
Combine all of this with the rise of police cameras capturing movements based on license plates and even the installation of school bus cameras that give automatic traffic tickets, and I think there is good reason to be concerned about the level of surveillance in our society.
That you move differently when you know you’re being watched is a fact. That you question whether you’re able to freely share your thoughts on being constantly observed is a travesty. As proceedings to chart our collective path forward on this continue in secret, I do not know what a solution looks like.
I do know that awareness of these activities is a benefit to all – and that an informed and open discussion is the best path forward. I fear that these two factors – being informed and being open – are all but unachievable in the current socio-political climate, driven by an administration who cracks down harder on whistleblowers than all other previous administrations combined.
Movement – physical, political, cultural, and otherwise – is fundamentally changed when it happens under observation. We must make our feelings towards these practices known, while we’re still able to effect the use and prevent the normalization of these behaviors and capabilities.