The Ethical, Psychological, and Social Implications of Mass Surveillance

GCHQ and mass surveillance

In 2013, the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the British spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), tapped fibre-optic cables for access to our personal communications (including emails, Facebook posts, internet histories, and phone calls), and then shared this information with the National Security Agency (NSA), the major spy agency in the US. The Snowden leaks were (and still are) one of the most important revelations about the government that the public have been kept in the dark about. These leaks showed us that both the UK and US governments were engaged in an unlawful programme of mass surveillance. In 2016, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) found that UK spying agencies have been invading our personal lives, illegally, for the past 17 years.

Privacy campaigners have complained that, six years on from the leaks, there is still mass surveillance. But Snowden isn’t so despondent. He stresses that the level of public awareness about mass surveillance is completely different now. He said:

The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now. People are still powerless to stop it but we are trying. The revelations made the fight more even.

More people also care about mass surveillance. For example, a 2016 survey carried out by Comparitech shows that 70% of UK citizens think the government should delete all personal data acquired through illegal methods. 55% of those surveyed were also not comfortable with the government accessing their personal information. It’s essential that we highlight the ethical, psychological, and social implications of mass surveillance, as the dangers of collecting personal information en masse are still unappreciated by many people. This understanding will help citizens to demand their right to privacy with the conviction that it deserves.

The Immorality of Mass Surveillance 

The moral problem of mass surveillance relates to the fact that, in general, we have an interest in privacy. And we can regard the thwarting of our interests by another entity (the government, in this case) as a moral wrong. Humans share interests in multifarious things: the absence of suffering, the presence of positive feelings, dignity, respect, freedom, and – which will be argued for here – privacy. Indeed, having private lives defines us as people as much as having social lives. Moreover, the great degree of meaning and value we attach to privacy is why it exists as a human right. Joseph Raz, an Israeli moral and political philosopher, formulated rights in the following way:

X has a right’ if and only if X can have rights and, other things being equal, an aspect of X’s well-being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty.

An interest-based approach to ethics and rights helps to validate the right to privacy: we care very much about having a private life. For moral theorists, rights are framed as moral entitlements we possess by virtue of our common humanity and interests. We all desire to have a domain free from the watchful, judgemental eyes of others (or particular people), including our body, home, property, thoughts, feelings, identity, and communications. The right to privacy, for moral theorists, helps to protect something universal that makes us human.

People have an interest in hiding certain information for completely non-nefarious reasons. However, those who are untroubled by mass surveillance will say, “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, which raises the question of whether we should care if our personal information is collected and analysed in bulk. But Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped to publish Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, has illustrated perfectly why privacy matters to all of us.

First of all, he asserts, we can tell that privacy is incredibly important to us based on the fact that we would rarely give away our passwords to others. So how can we trust spies when we know that they abused their powers to spy on friends and family? In addition, we would not be happy with having a webcam in our bedroom and bathroom, which government spies could access and use to watch us in our home. If you truly had nothing you’d want to hide, your life would, arguably, be quite bland: it would lack many aspects of being human that we prefer to keep private, including sexual activity, intimate and open conversations, personal web usage, and eccentric behaviour or lifestyle choices. In response to the ‘nothing to hide’ argument in favour of mass surveillance, Snowden remarked:

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Of course, we may question the extent to which privacy is conducive to our well-being; whereas, in contrast, it is far more palpable than the absence of suffering and the presence of positive feelings are essential to our overall happiness. Nonetheless, we can still make the case that the right to privacy exists because we have a strong interest in privacy and that in situations in which we lack privacy, we suffer important losses. Liberty, a UK civil liberties organisation, underscores that threats to privacy undermine human dignity, equal treatment, free expression, autonomy, and trust. Let’s explore in greater detail the psychological and social implications of mass surveillance, as this will help to strengthen the argument that the loss of privacy impacts our well-being in various ways.

The Psychological and Social Effects of Mass Surveillance

Research demonstrates a range of negative psychological effects caused by surveillance. These include increased levels of stress, fatigue, and anxiety, while in the workplace it reduces feelings of personal control, as well as performance. Studies from the 1950s have shown that surveillance breeds conformity to social norms. Being watched makes us less likely to think in innovative, critical, and original ways. Mass surveillance, then, ends up fuelling mediocrity. It is a stifling force. Other research illustrates that surveillance promotes a distrustful attitude towards the state.

It may feel easier to ignore the fact you’re personal communications are being collected in bulk compared to a situation where someone is physically watching over you or you notice CCTV cameras around. But it is surveillance still the same. Snowden’s revelations should make us more sensitive, in our day-to-day lives, that we are constantly being monitored. And countless people have become keenly aware of the scale of mass surveillance that has occurred, and which continues to flourish. It’s also critical to be mindful of how this surveillance affects us psychologically. When you are being watched, you are more likely to modulate your behaviour; it makes you more anxious about what you say to others and what kind of content you search for online. In a nutshell, mass surveillance limits your freedom. It engenders self-censorship and self-policing, an effect of surveillance that the philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out in his book Discipline and Punish (1979). According to Foucault, this is a way for the state to control the public without resorting to physical force.

Mass surveillance is pernicious because its psychological effects are subtle and difficult to notice, but this doesn’t mean the ramifications aren’t serious. As the authors of one study on mass surveillance note:

The autonomy and aspects of human dignity that the right to privacy protects are vital to the development of individuality and consciousness of individual choice in life. Severe restrictions on privacy thus have severe repercussions on individuals.

Furthermore, Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, states in the Washington Post that mass surveillance:

can undermine trust and chill free speech and association. It can make people vulnerable to abuse of their information and further intrusions into their lives. Even if a person is doing nothing wrong, in a free society, that person shouldn’t have to justify every action that government officials might view as suspicious. A key component of freedom is not having to worry about how to explain oneself all the time.

In this way, mass surveillance can limit dissent, which is absolutely key to enacting political change and progress. Privacy is paramount to true freedom, and without it properly protected, the things we feel comfortable saying and doing may become restricted. Privacy can justifiably be interfered with if that interference is proportionate and for good reason, such as protecting national security, public safety, or the rights of others, or preventing crime. However, the Snowden leaks show that the US and UK governments have – and continue to – infringe on our right to privacy in a grossly disproportionate and unjustified manner. We must be aware of the ethical, psychological, and social implications of such actions if we are to effectively demand the privacy we are entitled to.

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