We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren’t as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.
In the months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of us censored what we spoke about on social media or what we searched on the Internet. We know from a 2013 PEN study that writers in the United States self-censored their browsing habits out of fear the government was watching. And this isn’t exclusively an American event; Internet self-censorship is prevalent across the globe, China being a prime example.
Ultimately, this fear stagnates society in two ways. The first is that the presence of surveillance means society cannot experiment with new things without fear of reprisal, and that means those experiments – if found to be inoffensive or even essential to society – cannot slowly become commonplace, moral, and then legal. If surveillance nips that process in the bud, change never happens. All social progress – from ending slavery to fighting for women’s rights – began as ideas that were, quite literally, dangerous to assert. Yet without the ability to safely develop, discuss, and eventually act on those assertions, our society would not have been able to further its democratic values in the way that it has.
We don’t yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they’re around. And they require privacy to germinate.
The second way surveillance hurts our democratic values is that it encourages society to make more things illegal. Consider the things you do – the different things each of us does – that portions of society find immoral. Not just recreational drugs and gay sex, but gambling, dancing, public displays of affection. All of us do things that are deemed immoral by some groups, but are not illegal because they don’t harm anyone. But it’s important that these things can be done out of the disapproving gaze of those who would otherwise rally against such practices.
If there is no privacy, there will be pressure to change. Some people will recognize that their morality isn’t necessarily the morality of everyone – and that that’s okay. But others will start demanding legislative change, or using less legal and more violent means, to force others to match their idea of morality.
It’s easy to imagine the more conservative (in the small-c sense, not in the sense of the named political party) among us getting enough power to make illegal what they would otherwise be forced to witness. In this way, privacy helps protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
For social norms to change, people need to deviate from these inherited norms. People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone’s knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words. People need to be able to do things that others find distasteful, or even immoral. The minority needs protection from the tyranny of the majority.
Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.