Surveillance as we know it

We’ve all been there: turning the pages of the novel ‘1984’ (George Orwell) terrified of the story and shivering at the thought of somebody watching our every move. We are trying to convince ourselves that the world described there has nothing to do with our reality. Which is partly true. ‘Big Brother’ isn’t watching us through a television, but through every other thing we use on a daily basis: smartphone, laptop, car, credit card, oyster, CCTV. And the worst part of it is that we are fine with this situation. We willingly give out our information, our data, location, card details, name and address, never questioning any of it. This is called ‘participatory surveillance’ (Albrechtslund 2008) and it has become a component of our daily lives.

Surveillance is a big issue that should concern each and every one of us, but we tend to ignore it. Maybe it is because we are too scared of its real consequences and connotations and we embrace the ‘Ignorance is bliss’ strategy — just as Glenn Greenwald emphasizes in ‘No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA & the surveillance state’ Snowden’s fear that ‘people will see these documents [about the NSA and their surveillance program] and shrug and say we assumed this was happening and don’t care’. To some extent I believe that is the exact thing that is happening, because in today’s society this isn’t just called surveillance, but ‘participatory surveillance’.

One way to look at this type of surveillance is that it is seen as a normal thing these days. We don’t even question why Snapchat enquires for our location, as long as we can attach a geotag to our selfie to brag about where we are. We accept terms and conditions faster than we accept a free drink. Our every movement, every transaction, every phone call is being surveilled and we pretend that nothing is wrong. One of the reasons we may actually deem this as normal, as Robert O’Harrow says in his book ‘No Place to Hide’, is that the 9/11 events was a wake-up call to the authorities, which resulted in them embracing constant surveillance: over the traffic, emails, phone calls. The 9/11 events brought a lot of fear into everybody’s lives and this constant surveillance seemed the normal thing to do in order to avoid such events from happening and in order to catch the ‘bad guys’. But nobody thinks about the fact that in order to know who the ‘bad guys’ are, all of us are being tested, watched and verified, therefore surveilled.

We share our entire lives online, starting with what we ate at breakfast to how we can’t sleep. We accept having our conversations listened to and emails read. We are immersed into this world where if we don’t share everything online we don’t exist. And that’s what we do, we put ourselves out there to seem cool and put our information in ‘their’ hands, letting ‘them’ do whatever ‘they’ please with it. So, does ‘1984’ seem just fiction anymore? Is that the scary thing or the fact that we live in that world without even realizing or fighting it?