It has become dramatically easier to watch what people do from day to day on a very intimate level. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on psychology: if you live in a surveillance state for long enough, you create a censor in your head

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked.

What do you do when you know nobody can stop you? Me, I like to travel. In the past three years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in a number of world cities, but lately when I come back home to London and ride the Underground, I am struck by a nagging sense that something is missing. It took a friend visiting from the United States to point out what it is. There’s almost no graffiti. The people of London do not habitually doodle on our public transportation system. That makes us unusual.

It’s very hard to stop people writing on their own city. In Berlin, in New York and in Chicago, buses and trains and public buildings have tags and drawings scrawled all over them, from the skilled and serious to the crudely anatomical. This winter, in the streets outside the Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, a bold slogan was daubed over the latest attempt by state officials to whitewash over words of protest. When I asked my friend to translate the Arabic, he told me it meant: “Hey, nice paint job!” In the Athens subway, every surface that will hold colour has been annotated. But not the London Underground, which coincidentally is watched by more than 11,000 CCTV cameras.

We have murals and bits of street art, but everyday graffiti is far less common than elsewhere. What is stopping us?

It’s not that Londoners are afraid. Not quite. It’s that in the world’s most surveillance-heavy metropolis, in a city that unironically welcomed tourists to the Olympics with a mascot of a lidless panopticon eyeball dressed as a police officer, it usually doesn’t occur to us to be anything other than compliant.

After the revelations in the past few weeks that the US National Security Agency and British intelligence have had access to data from big internet and telephone providers through the Prism programme, it is worth thinking about how everyday surveillance changes our behaviour. I’m not just talking about activists. I’m also talking to you, typical New Statesman reader, you who are the picture of moderate liberalism and have only occasionally contemplated setting fire to the House of Lords. As it becomes easier and more routine for states to collect and analyse large quantities of data about their citizens, and as it becomes ever harder for those citizens to stop them, the changes are producing a gradual chilling effect.

Don’t panic: just because Google, Facebook, Skype, Verizon and other companies are routinely monitored by the CIA doesn’t mean that somebody is watching you every time you order groceries online or voice-chat your sister in Seoul. It just means that they could if you gave them a reason to do so. That means you can relax – right up until the time when you want to go to a protest, or your sister does, or you support the fact that several thousand complete strangers did.

It’s hard to talk about all of this sensibly without sounding like the proverbial streetcorner ranter, two screws short of an inflammatory sandwich board, telling everyone how the CIA has put cameras in our underpants. The problem is that the CIA probably wouldput cameras in our underpants if there were a subtle, easy and cost-effective way for it to do so, although I pity the poor surveillance grunt who might one day have to check out where my Marks & Spencer value-pack knickers have been.

As it is, it has become dramatically easier to watch what people do from day to day on a very intimate level. We knew this before the NSA leaks. We are reminded of it every time we tick the little box that says “I agree”. The big question is how it changes our everyday behaviour.

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked. To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy. That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl, because it’s their job to know about such things. There is a non-zero cost to this sort of awareness.

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard”. Self-censorship is significant in a world where, increasingly, as the tech journalist Quinn Norton observes, “falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same: it looks like typing”.

There are still ways to operate in private. If I want to have an online conversation or make a transaction that I’m absolutely sure can’t be snooped on, there are tools I can download, software I can teach myself to use. But it’s a faff, and it can protect you only so far unless you choose to go entirely off-grid, and I’ve been addicted to Facebook since 2006. It’s far less trouble to modify your behaviour so you don’t ever say anything that might give the wrong impression. It’s easier, in short, to behave.

Fighting for the basic privacy that our grandparents took for granted is exhausting, so, instead, we might change how we speak and act, subtly, without even knowing that we’re doing it. The word that Michel Foucault uses to describe this type of modified behaviour is discipline. We might not make jokes about blowing up airports on the internet any longer, because we know that if we’re caught there will be consequences. We might not make any more unauthorised searches on our work computers. We might take care what we download.

The chilling disciplinary effect taking place in the digital age affects everyone. Whether we tolerate further intrusions on our privacy or continue to self-censor as a response to surveillance is up to all of us.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.