Peter Watts on the Harms of Surveillance
Biologist Peter Watts makes some good points:
Mammals don’t respond well to surveillance. We consider it a threat. It makes us paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful.
“Natural selection favors the paranoid,” Watts said. Those who run away. In the earliest days of man on the savannah, when we roamed among the predatory, wild animals, someone realized pretty quickly that lions stalked their prey from behind the tall, untamed grass. And so anyone hoping to keep on breathing developed a healthy fear of the lions in the grass and listened for the rustling in the brush in order to avoid becoming lunch for an animal more powerful than themselves. It was instinct. If the rustling, the perceived surveillance, turns out to just be the wind? Well, no harm done.
“For a very long time, people who don’t see agency have a disproportionate tendency to get eaten,” Watts noted.
And so, we’ve developed those protective instincts. “We see faces in the clouds; we hear ghosts and monsters in the stairs at night,” Watts said. “The link between surveillance and fear is a lot deeper than the average privacy advocate is willing to admit.”
“A lot of critics say blanket surveillance treats us like criminals, but it’s deeper than that,” he said. “It makes us feel like prey. We’re seeing stalking behavior in the illogical sense,” he said.
This is interesting. People accept government surveillance out of fear: fear of the terrorists, fear of the criminals. If Watts is right, then there’s a conflict of fears. Because terrorists and criminals—kidnappers, child pornographers, drug dealers, whatever—is more evocative than the nebulous fear of being stalked, it wins.
EDITED TO ADD (5/23): His own post is better than the write-up.
EDITED TO ADD (5/24): Peter Watts has responded to this post, complaining about the misquotes in the article I quoted. He will post a transcript of his talk, so we can see what he actually said. My guess is that I will still agree with it.
He also recommended this post of his, which is well worth reading.
EDITED TO ADD (5/27): Here is the transcript.