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We might want a smart refrigerator to order milk when we run out, but might not want the Internet of Things to listen to everything in our “smart home,” especially when we have a family crisis unfolding, such as a teenager dealing with drug addiction or a pregnancy scare.We might like taking nature photos with our own small drone, but wince when laws don’t prevent a creepy neighbor from flying his drone over our teenager’s backyard pool party.
But if Americans assume it can’t happen here, they’re not paying attention.
Consider the potential abuses of workplace surveillance.
In the anxious years since 9/11, surveillance has become one of the essential infrastructures for 21st-century social life, commerce, and government.
With an endless number of drones, sensors, scanners, archives, and algorithms constantly at work for governments and corporations alike, these technologies of monitoring, securing, and sorting are not always visible to the naked eye, but are always humming in the background in ways that we have barely begun to understand.
For many of us, surveillance forces an adjustment of our interior life, a stiffening of our feelings: Someone is watching. Especially when surveillance is focused on security, it can add the gnawing sense that “something bad happened here,” “something bad could happen here,” “someone is watching,” or even the fantasy that “someone will save me.” Privacy, on the other hand, grants us a reprieve from such anxieties and uncertainties; it gives us the gift of what one scholar calls “emotional liberty.” If we value liberty and autonomy, we need to have a more critical conversation about surveillance technology, one that leads to smarter legal protections of our privacy and dignity both online and off. As someone who has spent the last 10 years exploring this issue, I fear a fundamental human right is missing here: the right to be left alone.
People need to be able to educate themselves and choose not only how these technologies exist in the world at large, but also how much access they have to our personal data and even our bodies. Too often we think of freedom in a narrow sense, that it is simply what the law allows us to do or say.Psychologically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually, we need freedom from the conformist pressures of CCTV cameras, the psychological burdens of workplace monitoring, the anxiety of being scrutinized by credit card companies looking at our purchases, or simply strangers gawking at us on social media.Must we be subjected to the constant threat of exposure and scrutiny in every part of our life? Must everything be visible on social media, CCTV, or TSA body scanner? And I hope we don’t shrug and simply grow accustomed to ever-increasing levels of invasiveness.Social psychologists looking at workplace surveillance have found ample evidence that even the threat of surveillance is enough to change behavior, making workers “follow rules more carefully and act more subservient,” as well as experiencing greater stress, a loss of personal control, and “a decreased sense of procedural justice.” It’s harder to work when you know a camera is perched over your shoulder and productivity software is analyzing your keystrokes for maximum efficiency.Employers might like such productivity metrics, but rarely consider the cost to workers who feel like they have no place to hide. In this sense, surveillance can add an emotional charge to an existing atmosphere: It may even channel our chaotic energies into officially approved channels with names like vigilance, dread, fear, relief, certainty, permanence, compliance, consumption, adding a layer of meaning to the social scene that we can feel in our gut or on the back of our neck.In fact, Americans have complex, ambivalent feelings about surveillance.We might be excited to hear that a digital pill can tell our doctor via Bluetooth that our meds have been ingested on time, but worry what will happen once the insurance companies know the contents of our stomach.Balancing between national security and individual privacy is seemingly a daunting task that does not promise an amicable solution in the near future.There are so many controversies surrounding this issue where people with opposing opinions are striving to ensure that their views dominate.For instance, most Americans probably shudder when they hear about the rise of social credit scoring in China.An authoritarian government watching everything through sophisticated CCTV and online monitoring systems, then coming up with a score that could prevent someone from getting a job—it sounds like something out of a dystopian movie.