July 18, 2019

What Constant Surveillance Does to Your Brain

“You are being watched. Right now, cookies are tracking which websites you visit and what you click on while you’re there. Your smartphone is logging your location. And if you’re anywhere outside your home, there’s a good chance a camera is recording you, and might even be attempting to identify your face.

As technology and machine learning continue to advance, we’re integrating surveillance into our daily lives at an increasing rate, and the level of surveillance is becoming more sophisticated. It’s easy to overlook all the ways we’re being tracked, but as soon as you start to quantify it, it quickly becomes unsettling. And it may make you wonder: what effect does being watched all the time have on your behavior—and your brain? Turns out, it can be just as mentally taxing as mental disorders like depression, and can even cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Let’s begin by trying to quantify just how much the average American is being tracked, because it’s not always apparent. When news of a massive breach breaks, we become more vigilant momentarily, but experts say that the surveillance we’re aware of is only the tip of the iceberg.

“When we think of surveillance, people traditionally think of the standard forms of embodiment like CCTVs or spies tapping a phone line,” Christopher Burr, a researcher at the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford, told me in a Skype interview. “But that doesn’t really capture the general character of what’s becoming increasingly more possible, and more and more effective.””

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