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Psychological Repercussions of Surveillance

by Anthony W. Accurso

Steve Martinot, Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University, wrote a lay explanation of the psychological effects of the surveillance state, explaining its persistent harm and its purpose in perpetuating norms of oppression.

The concept of ubiquitous state surveillance dates back to a 19th Century philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, who proposed the “panopticon” to more efficiently control prisoners. Bentham described a central tower in a prison that could see into all the prison cells around it, while the prisoners could neither see each other, nor could they discern whether the guard in the tower was watching them.

Martinot states that this constant awareness of possible observation made “[e]ach person their own constant disciplinarian and source of regimentation.” The constant awareness of being the object of another person’s observation creates “a dual consciousness, his own and that of the unseen other, resulting in a loss of identity through that doubling of consciousness,” which ultimately begets “a slow process of self-dislocation, and eventually dementia.”

This concept can be applied at the community level — effectively treating the community like a prison — and is how W.E.B. DuBois described the condition of Black people in the U.S. living under the oppression of a white-supremacist-controlled state. Black communities in America have always been subject to oppressive surveillance going back to slave patrols, and their evolution into our modern conception of police.

However, unlike Bentham’s concept of the prison with a panopticon, Black community members can interact with each other and act collectively to oppose the surveillance and oppression. This cohesion allowed for a reconstruction of Black identity, leading to the “efflorescence of art and letters in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s” and “[i]n the 1960s, it gave rise to Black arts movements in many cities,” according to Martinot.

Such resistance leads to backlash though, as the oppressors seek to reimpose control through the increased imposition of surveillance. As outright slavery has been prohibited since the resolution of the U.S. Civil War, this backlash has manifested in popular media fear-mongering about “crime waves.” Refer to the Mann Acts, passed in the early 20th Century ostensibly to solve the problem of sex trafficking of white women, or the more recent “War on Drugs,” which also disproportionally targeted Black communities for prosecution despite similar rates of drug abuse among whites.

The central message of this fear-mongering is that crime is dangerous and increasing, and thus “[w]e must hire more police, and institute more surveillance, to protect ourselves.” But Martinot draws attention to the definition of crime implicit in such messaging and how it serves the white autocracy.

For instance, increased police presence and surveillance do not stop administrative corruption or corporate crime. Nor do they appear to “solve” the problems of drug abuse or sexual violence, as the failures of the wars on drugs and pornography attest. These certainly have had no noticeable effect on crimes committed by the police themselves, because criminal prosecutions of murderous or abusive officers has seen no meaningful increase since the rampant proliferation of police body cameras and camera-equipped cellphones.

Consequently, the ubiquitous gaze of surveillance is constantly trained toward Black communities as a means of reestablishing the control and oppression lost after the Civil War. Without a coordinated effort to resist surveillance, it manifests injurious psychological states Martinot describes as “1) one’s alienation from others; 2) the feeling that one inhabits an unlivable yet inescapable political situation; and 3) a desire for stasis, a livability devoid of opportunity.”

In these states, “[s]elf-regimentation becomes a constant force for conformity,” and “[s]ituations that require solidarity or common agreement or social activity (even to correct injustices) become threats.” Through fear of punishment, surveilled persons seek to distinguish themselves from the criminal “other.”

This further manifests as a willingness to be subjected to ever-increasing surveillance with the self-justification of “I have nothing to fear from it; I’m not doing anything wrong.” Martinot says this thinking reveals “a complicated structure of fear.”

“It is addressed to a primordial fear (of the state), for which it substitutes a postulated and fearful threat (a crime problem), with respect to which it takes sides (I’m not part of the threat), as if afraid to be confused with those who are,” wrote Martinot. “In other words, surveillance strategies carefully brand themselves as protection against crime in order to assuage the more basic fear of surveillance.”

Martinot uses the example of automated license plate readers (“ALPRs”) to expose the folly of allowing surveillance under the pretense of capturing the “real criminals.” In 2016, the Berkeley Police got authorization to install ALPRs in their jurisdiction for the purpose of catching “gang members” who had been involved in several shootings and “smash and grab” robberies.

According to Martinot, that same year “a woman was falsely associated with a criminal event through her license plate’s proximity to it. She was investigated, in the process of which she lost her job (though no charges were ever filed). As a result, she ended up homeless.”

Such outcomes are normalized in a way that results in no consequences for the police. Indeed, they convince communities to adopt surveillance technologies by using justifications that distance themselves from unjust outcomes by saying things like “ALPRs are just tools and tools cannot be racist, so enforcement actions flowing from them can’t be racist,” and “it’s not people that are being surveilled, it’s cars.”

However, by 2019, the Berkeley Police data showed no mitigation of their racial bias problem. Other published studies about ALPRs, such as “Efficiency of Automated License Plate Reader Hits in Piedmont, California,” by Jonathan Hofer of The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, have shown they have no meaningful effect on crime rates.

Martinot says that such disconnects between people and governance create “both opportunity and inducement for governmental abuse,” suggesting that “all surveillance represents a paradigm of political exclusion, and an arena for abuse of power.”

The assuaging of fear through allowing surveillance is reflected in criminalization of the “other” to absolve the public’s paranoia. This country’s Founders insisted on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and expressed that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” a maxim that came to be known as Blackstone’s ratio.

Yet suspects are often confined to jails — with extortionate bonds, or without the possibility of bond at all — until they plead guilty, often despite being factually innocent of the charged offense because doing some smaller amount of time is easier than fighting an overwhelming system.

Plea deals make up 95–97% of all convictions in the U.S. (depending on whether one is looking at the federal system or the states collectively), and Martinot says such “bargains leave no record or trial or certification of evidence or witness testimony; nothing at all to signify a judicial process. Only confessions exist, forced under the pressure of blackmail. Judicial condemnation is reduced to pure existential event.” Thus, accusation becomes criminalization, and suspects are effectively presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Martinot concludes that surveillance “represents a sense of political exclusion from governance” and “a valorization of impunity and an autocratic approach to people.” This method of governance is anti-democratic.

Thus, the key to preventing the whole of society from descending into the psychological torture idealized in Bentham’s idea of the panopticon is individual and organized resistance to state surveillance. 


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