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Maybe surveillance is bad, after all

Wired News | August 8, 2007
John Borland

Privacy advocates have a problem.

People who want to increase the amount of surveillance in society, whether it's wire-tapping, closed-circuit cameras, or data mining, have an easy argument. There are terrorists and criminals out there, and these tools can help stop violence and crime, they say.

Philosopher Sandro Gaycken, a PhD student at Germany's Institut für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung in Bielefeld, wants to give pro-privacy forces stronger arguments to counter these concerns. Speaking today at the Chaos Communication Camp, he conceded that activists' justifications for their concerns often fail to resonate with the broad public. Many anti-surveillance arguments are based on vaguely emotional concerns, or appeals to abstract values, as opposed to the hard facts of suicide bombers or commuters killed on the subway.

In response, Gaycken argued that there are well-established psychological consequences to being watched, observed consistently in studies. People change, tailoring their behavior to fit what they believe the observer wants (or in some cases actively rebelling against those wishes).

Now imagine a society where everyone knows they are or may be watched as they walk through the streets, or while surfing online. That as in societies like Hitler's Germany or Soviet Russia will have tangible and widespread psychological consequences, reinforcing conformity, and literally crippling the ability to make autonomous and ethical decisions, he argued.

An analogy might be the well-studied population of children with overprotective mothers, the philosopher said. Studies show that such children tend to be indecisive, dependent on others, have little "ethical competence," and often live suppressed and unhappy lives.

As or more disturbing may be the political implications of having a surveillance infrastructure in place.

Many philosophers reject the notion that given technologies are inherently politically neutral, Gaycken said. Surveillance, for example, can be used to support democratic values of freedom, equality, and state neutrality but its tendency to create a watched and a watching class lends itself better to totalitarianism. In a country such as Germany, which has seen democracy slide into the Nazi state, such a warning resonates strongly.

"Surveillance stabilizes totalitarianism, and destabilizes democracy," Gaycken warned.

Are these issues enough to harden privacy advocates' arguments against the apocalyptic warnings of surveillance supporters? Not everyone in this hackers' audience was entirely convinced, with some asking for still more concrete arguments to counter Cheneyesque predictions of violence and chaos.

Others offered their own practical suggestions for action. Philippe Langlois, a French programmer, told of his own project hanging Christmas decorations on the closed-circuit cameras in Parisian Metro stations, thus drawing people's amused -- but often shocked -- attention to the devices' prevalence.

"That's a hack, too," he said. "Besides, it's fun."

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