Is Mass Surveillance The New Mass Incarceration?

Untitled NSA Timeline of Surveillance Milestone 1972–2010 (Source: The New York Times)

In Micheal Jacobsen’s case against mass incarceration he ascribed the responsibility of escalating imprisonment — in part — to the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. A rhetoric that is now being pivoted to enable mass surveillance.

You can see this in President-elect Trump’s intent to empower the NSA, the UK’s recent legislation to broaden state surveillance, and the ongoing ramp-up of surveillance legislation within the US (seen above).

The implementation of mass surveillance through the 2000s and 2010s mirrors the trajectory of mass incarceration in the 80s and 90s. In the same way that the War on Drugs enabled the rise in imprisonment, the War on Terror has provided a social license for increased surveillance and has left little incentive for politicians to oppose surveillance measures that impinge on personal privacy and civil liberties.

In addition, it is clear that the unintended consequences of both mass incarceration and surveillance are similar in that they have, and will continue to, disproportionately affect marginalized racial groups.

However, unlike mass incarceration, which has plateaued since 2000, it may prove more difficult to limit the proliferation and reach of mass surveillance. Primarily because the restrictive effects of surveillence on civil liberties are more intangible, and can be better hidden from the majority of the public.

In the end, if mass surveillance successfully supplants mass incarceration, both may ultimately share the same limits to expansion, namely: (1) cost, the NSA alone allegedly costs in excess of $20 billion, and (2) it’s benefits — like it’s negative effects — are largely intangible to the everyday citizen. Here, there undoubtedly are lessons to be learned by further examining the evolutionary parallels between the two.