Being Watched -How It Affects Your Health

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Being Watched ---How It Affects Your Health

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November 24, 2013
By KENNETH LASHAY, Contributing Columnist

In his classic novel ‘1984’, George Orwell depicts a totalitarian society under mass surveillance around the clock, and the effects that such a repressive regime can have on society at large. When people are motivated by fear, paranoia, obedience, and the urge to conform, all individualism and all creativity vanish. 

While the premise of this novel struck me for most of my life as extreme, it is a rather disconcerting fact that in our world today, the technology to accomplish 24-7, 360 degree surveillance does exist, and lest you think the only element lacking is the governmental will to do it, be sure to read through to the end of this essay.

The question of how people are affected by being watched has been well researched in the past, and conclusions from that body of research have consistently shown that subjects do not react well to surveillance. 

In the February, 1992 issue of ‘Applied Ergonomics’, professors from the University of Madison-Wisconsin (M. J. Smith et al), questioned 745 employees from AT&T whose performance was electronically monitored. The focus of questioning involved the employees’ perception of job satisfaction, job performance, and overall employee health. The general results were that employees described working conditions as stressful, and reported increased levels of job boredom, tension, depression, anxiety, fatigue, anger, and health complaints.

In a 2012 study conducted by the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, the effects of constant surveillance were tested in Finnish households via the use of video cameras, microphones, and logging software for all electronic devices. Participants were asked to fill out questionnaires and were interviewed after six and twelve months. 

One household dropped out of the program after three months, citing ‘unbearable breach of privacy’. The remaining households reported varying levels of annoyance, anger, and anxiety both for video surveillance and electronics monitoring. Additionally, over time household members modified their behavior – they became more secretive about certain activities, and either attempted to hide them from the intrusive cameras, or took them outside the household entirely.

While conclusions obtained from carefully conducted and controlled surveys demonstrate significant negative results to surveillance, recent disclosures have had the effect of establishing a kind of world laboratory, where social fallout from surveillance could be observed on a grand scale. In May of 2013, former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to ‘The Guardian’ newspaper about the existence of  clandestine mass surveillance operations known as Tempora and PRISM. 

This program tapped into Internet cables to gain enormous amounts of personal user data in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries, with the full knowledge of the companies owning either the cables, the landing stations, or both.

When this news was made public, this psychological world laboratory clearly demonstrated the effects on those being monitored. German Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger declared it a ‘nightmare’, and demanded that European institutions investigate. John Philipp Albrecht of the European Parliament, insisted on calling the UK to task for violating the clause in the ‘Treaties of the European Union’ which guarantees protection of individuals’ personal data.
With the U.S. named as a huge participant in Tempora, the U.S. Army restricted access to the website for ‘The Guardian’, to stem the flow of leaked information. Politicians, organizations, and agencies around the globe reacted with disbelief, outrage, fear, and paranoia – all on the world stage for everyone to see. 

From both controlled studies and mass surveillance attempts, it is fairly evident that the effect on people when being watched is strongly in the negative, with levels of reaction related to the degree of surveillance. 

Without question, modern society is becoming watched more and more – by everything from phone-tapping and computer-monitoring to the ubiquitous video cameras in all places public and private, our thoughts and activities are being tracked. While this is perhaps not quite Orwellian in degree, it would at least seem to be prevalent enough in today’s world to draw the comparison.

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