Home > Uncategorized > Glenn Greenwald Reports on Research that Links Surveillance to Self Censorship

Glenn Greenwald Reports on Research that Links Surveillance to Self Censorship

Glenn Greenwald, champion of free speech and privacy rights, wrote a compelling article in The Intercept titled “New Study Shows Mass Surveillance Breeds Meekness, Fear, and Self-Censorship”. The article cites recent research that shows how the fear of monitoring by the government has stemmed Google searches on particular topics:

The new study documents how, in the wake of the 2013 Snowden revelations (of which 87 percent of Americans were aware), there was “a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’” People were afraid to read articles about those topics because of fear that doing so would bring them under a cloud of suspicion. The dangers of that dynamic were expressed well by (Researcher Jon) Penney: “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

I’ve experienced this kind of self-censorship myself, but for different reasons. Whenever I type in some kind of inquiry dealing with a medical malady or a destination of a future trip I’m planning or research a product I am thinking of acquiring, I invariably receive an unwanted trove of information in my emails and lots of advertisements on the sides of articles I download. That information is being collected in some archive somewhere and, presumably, could be easily retrieved and used to identify medical problems I’ve encountered, places I am intending to travel, and purchases I’m planning. But here’s what is potentially even more threatening: the articles I read and RSS feeds I receive are also stored somewhere and provide a political profile of me that may at some point put me into disfavor. And more threatening yet is the fact that blog posts I’ve written and/or articles I’ve read and found thought provoking could disappear from the web with the click of a mouse held in the hand of a censor.

Much of Greenwald’s article, though, focusses on the effects of physical surveillance: the kind of surveillance that students are being subjected to on a daily basis in the name of “safety”:

There are also numerous psychological studies demonstrating that people who believe they are being watched engage in behavior far more compliant, conformist and submissive than those who believe they are acting without monitoring. That same realization served centuries ago as the foundation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: that behaviors of large groups of people can be effectively controlled through architectural structures that make it possible for them to be watched at any given movement even though they can never know if they are, in fact, being monitored, thus forcing them to act as if they always are being watched. This same self-censoring, chilling effect of the potential of being surveilled was also the crux of the tyranny about which Orwell warned in 1984:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

This passage from Orwell and the research findings are being applied daily in public schools where some cameras on school buses or in hallways are “dummy” cameras and some are real… but the effect is to make certain that students behave well. Clearly disruptive behavior on a bus or in the corridors of school is undesirable: but is the cost we are paying for this kind of monitoring worth it if we are conditioning students to be living with “…the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” Some disruption seems a small price to pay if we want our students to be open-minded, free-thinking, and willing to stand up to authority that is imposed unjustly and unfairly…. and authority imposed by 24/7 surveillance seems completely unjust and unfair.

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