There are all sorts of things that we do and think that we’re willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse or our best friend that we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn. We make judgments every single day about the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we’re willing to have other people know, and the kinds of things that we say and think and do that we don’t want anyone else to know about. People can very easily in words claim that they don’t value their privacy, but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.
Now, there’s a reason why privacy is so craved universally and instinctively. It isn’t just a reflexive movement like breathing air or drinking water.
The reason is that when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. The range of behavioral options that we consider when we think we’re being watched severely reduce. This is just a fact of human nature that has been recognized in social science and in literature and in religion and in virtually every field of discipline. There are dozens of psychological studies that prove that when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant.
Human shame is a very powerful motivator, as is the desire to avoid it, and that’s the reason why people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.
This realization was exploited most powerfully for pragmatic ends by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who set out to resolve an important problem ushered in by the industrial age, where, for the first time, institutions had become so large and centralized that they were no longer able to monitor and therefore control each one of their individual members, and the solution that he devised was an architectural design originally intended to be implemented in prisons that he called the panopticon, the primary attribute of which was the construction of an enormous tower in the center of the institution where whoever controlled the institution could at any moment watch any of the inmates, although they couldn’t watch all of them at all times.
And crucial to this design was that the inmates could not actually see into the panopticon, into the tower, and so they never knew if they were being watched or even when. And what made him so excited about this discovery was that that would mean that the prisoners would have to assume that they were being watched at any given moment, which would be the ultimate enforcer for obedience and compliance.
The 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault realized that that model could be used not just for prisons but for every institution that seeks to control human behavior: schools, hospitals, factories, workplaces. And what he said was that this mindset, this framework discovered by Bentham, was the key means of societal control for modern, Western societies, which no longer need the overt weapons of tyranny — punishing or imprisoning or killing dissidents, or legally compelling loyalty to a particular party — because mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle though much more effective means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, much more effective than brute force could ever be.
The most iconic work of literature about surveillance and privacy is the George Orwell novel “1984,” which we all learn in school, and therefore it’s almost become a cliche. In fact, whenever you bring it up in a debate about surveillance, people instantaneously dismiss it as inapplicable, and what they say is, “Oh, well in ‘1984,’ there were monitors in people’s homes, they were being watched at every given moment, and that has nothing to do with the surveillance state that we face.”
That is an actual fundamental misapprehension of the warnings that Orwell issued in “1984.” The warning that he was issuing was about a surveillance state not that monitored everybody at all times, but where people were aware that they could be monitored at any given moment.
Here is how Orwell’s narrator, Winston Smith, described the surveillance system that they faced: “There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” He went on to say, “At any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had 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.”
The Abrahamic religions similarly posit that there’s an invisible, all-knowing authority who, because of its omniscience, always watches whatever you’re doing, which means you never have a private moment, the ultimate enforcer for obedience to its dictates.
What all of these seemingly disparate works recognize, the conclusion that they all reach, is that a society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity and obedience and submission, which is why every tyrant, the most overt to the most subtle, craves that system.
Conversely, even more importantly, it is a realm of privacy, the ability to go somewhere where we can think and reason and interact and speak without the judgmental eyes of others being cast upon us, in which creativity and exploration and dissent exclusively reside, and that is the reason why, when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.
The last point I want to observe about this mindset, the idea that only people who are doing something wrong have things to hide and therefore reasons to care about privacy, is that it entrenches two very destructive messages, two destructive lessons, the first of which is that the only people who care about privacy, the only people who will seek out privacy, are by definition bad people. This is a conclusion that we should have all kinds of reasons for avoiding, the most important of which is that when you say, “somebody who is doing bad things,” you probably mean things like plotting a terrorist attack or engaging in violent criminality, a much narrower conception of what people who wield power mean when they say, “doing bad things.” For them, “doing bad things” typically means doing something that poses meaningful challenges to the exercise of our own power.