In June of 2013, the global public latched its eyes onto America as we dug up our old copies of “1984” and surreptitiously eyed our computers’ webcams. We learned what many had long suspected — the National Security Agency collects and stores troves of data on international and domestic targets alike without warrant or, seemingly, discretion.
Since the initial leaks, we have learned much about the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother. The constitutional argument against this surveillance typically focuses on the Fourth Amendment right to protection against unlawful search and seizure. However, it is at least as important to consider the toll on our right to express and associate freely, without any government agency peering over our shoulders or, worse, digging through our belongings.
Supporters of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance argue that no harm can come from these tactics provided that you have “nothing to hide.” In order to address this nonchalant or blindly trusting population, perhaps the conversation should shift focus from the data collected to the collecting itself. Is there an intrinsic harm solely in the act of surveillance?
Many psychological studies have proven just that. These studies concluded that being watched creates behavior that is more compliant, more cooperative, and less likely to challenge existing moral norms.
In one study done by the University of Sydney in 2011, subjects were asked to rate the moral acceptability of hypothetical situations with one of two images placed above the rating system. In one condition, subjects were shown an image of flowers before making a judgment. In another condition, subjects were shown an image of a set of eyes. Overwhelmingly, subjects who were shown the eyes before making a judgment on morality rated the hypothetical situations as “less acceptable” than their peers who were not. Even a subtle cue of surveillance increased cooperative behaviors by an alarming 10%.
There are many additional studies that corroborate these results. After careful examination of the psychological effects of surveillance, we must determine if we are comfortable with a society more focused on affirming social norms than judging situations autonomously? At what point does mass surveillance become so intrusive as to alter the shape of society?
In a survey released last year by PEN American Center, writers internationally admitted to engaging in acts of self-censorship as a result of increased government surveillance.
For example, writers living in liberally-democratic societies have “avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or have seriously considered it, due to fear of government surveillance” at a level that is only marginally lower than non-democratic states with “long legacies of pervasive state surveillance.”
We cannot afford to sacrifice the creative and forward-thinking voices of our society in exchange for an arguably nonexistent security. No longer does suppression come from a forced hand, but simply a watchful one.
The knowledge that a subject is being watched results in behaviors that strengthen, not question, what is morally “normal” according to the status quo. In the long and troubled history of America, we have engaged in monstrous acts of malice against our fellow man because of what was considered immoral by many during that time.
The infamous “Jim Crow Laws” enacted strict segregation of all public places between black and white people in the United States and were not fully repealed until 1965. Interracial marriages remained illegal in 17 states until the year 1967.
In 1942, over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens were deported and incarcerated in internment camps due to unwarranted paranoia that some of them may be spies.
In 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which classified homosexuality as a reason for termination of employment due to “sexual perversion.”
States individually denied women the right to vote until a constitutional amendment was passed in 1920: forty-two years after it was first proposed.
In 1947, producers, directors, and screenwriters were held in contempt and imprisoned for supposed communist ties and countless others were “blacklisted” due to Congress’ suspicion that Hollywood was secretly disseminating communist propaganda.
Each of these instances of persecution are tiny glimpses into the oppressive history (and capabilities) of the United States government. While there is no way to predict the future, is it possible that we are honing a tool to more heinously recreate the past?
The United States government, as evidenced by its history, cannot be trusted to make judgments on morality. The powerful status quo made egregious claims of moral superiority in the past and it is possible that they will make similar claims again. This time, however, those judgments will be accompanied by an unparalleled surveillance that will intrinsically reduce independent thought on what is immoral, or perhaps, “un-American.”
What would McCarthy have done with the information obtained by the NSA? Would Susan B. Anthony continue to give speeches knowing that her drafts were being hacked and monitored? Would those traveling through the Underground Railroad make safe passage? What voice of progress is being stifled now because of a fear that today’s open-minded activist will be labeled tomorrow’s domestic terrorist?
Allowing the NSA to continue its massive spying programs will come at great cost to our inherent human right to self-expression and boundless critical thinking. Allowing the NSA to continue prying into our private communications will alter how people behave, how they create, and what power we ultimately have to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. That power will go to those who stand behind the all-seeing eye of mass surveillance — and will be stripped from those who kneel beneath it.
Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.