Your license plates can be collected as you drive to the meeting; your face can be scanned and identified as you walk into and out of the meeting. Ditto if you like their page, share a link with your friends, or just post about the issue. Maybe you are an immigrant yourself, documented or not. Or maybe some of your family is. Or maybe you have friends or coworkers who are. How likely are you to get involved if you know that your interest and concern can be gathered and used by government and corporate actors? What if the issue you are interested in is pro- or anti-gun control, anti-police violence or in support of the police?
Does that make a difference? But even if you are so fearless, you probably know someone who has more to lose, and thus more to fear, from their personal, sexual, or political beliefs being exposed. We know from a PEN study that writers in the United States self-censored their browsing habits out of fear the government was watching. In this way, privacy helps protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
Ultimately, this fear stagnates society in two ways. The first is that the presence of surveillance means society cannot experiment with new things without fear of reprisal, and that means those experiments—if found to be inoffensive or even essential to society—cannot slowly become commonplace, moral, and then legal. If surveillance nips that process in the bud, change never happens.
Yet without the ability to safely develop, discuss, and eventually act on those assertions, our society would not have been able to further its democratic values in the way that it has. Consider the decades-long fight for gay rights around the world. Queer relationships slowly progressed from being viewed as immoral and illegal, to being viewed as somewhat moral and tolerated, to finally being accepted as moral and legal.
In the end it was the public nature of those activities that eventually slayed the bigoted beast, but the ability to act in private was essential in the beginning for the early experimentation, community building, and organizing. Then it had to become a counterculture, and finally a social and political movement. If pervasive surveillance meant that those early pot smokers would have been arrested for doing something illegal, the movement would have been squashed before inception. Of course the story is more complicated than that, but the ability for members of society to privately smoke weed was essential for putting it on the path to legalization.
And they require privacy to germinate. The second way surveillance hurts our democratic values is that it encourages society to make more things illegal. Consider the things you do—the different things each of us does—that portions of society find immoral. Not just recreational drugs and gay sex, but gambling, dancing, public displays of affection. If there is no privacy, there will be pressure to change. But others will start demanding legislative change, or using less legal and more violent means, to force others to match their idea of morality.
Recipes for making your own spirits would have been much harder to distribute. Speakeasies would have been impossible to keep secret.
The criminal trade in illegal alcohol would also have been more effectively suppressed. Political organizing might have been difficult. In that world, the law might have stuck to this day.
China serves as a cautionary tale. The country has long been a world leader in the ubiquitous surveillance of its citizens, with the goal not of crime prevention but of social control. The details are yet unclear, but the general concept is that people will be rated based on their activities, both online and off.
Their political comments, their friends and associates, and everything else will be assessed and scored.
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Those who are conforming, obedient, and apolitical will be given high scores. People without those scores will be denied privileges like access to certain schools and foreign travel. At his rallies, he eggs on excited supporters that are menacing the journalists covering the events. It was only a little more than a year ago that a gunman stormed into a local newspaper in Maryland and killed five members of staff.
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