What surveillance really is, at its root, is a highly effective form of social control. The knowledge of always being watched changes our behavior and stifles dissent. The inability to associate secretly means there is no longer any possibility for free association. The inability to whisper means there is no longer any speech that is truly free of coercion, real or implied. Most profoundly, pervasive surveillance threatens to eliminate the most vital element of both democracy and social movements: the mental space for people to form dissenting and unpopular views.
Many commentators, and Edward Snowden himself, have noted that these surveillance programs represent an existential threat to democracy. This understates the problem. The universal surveillance programs in place now are not simply a potential threat, they are certain to destroy democracy if left unchecked. Democracy, even the shadow of democracy we currently practice, rests on the bedrock foundation of free association, free speech, and dissent. The consequence of the coercive power of surveillance is to subvert this foundation and undermine everything democracy rests on.
Within social movements, there is a temptation to say that nothing is really different. After all, governments have always targeted activist groups with surveillance and disruption, especially the successful ones.
But this new surveillance is different. What the US government and European allies have built is an infrastructure for perfect social control. By automating the process of surveillance, they have created the ability to effortlessly peer into the lives of everyone, all the time, and thus create a system with unprecedented potential for controlling how we behave and think.
~ from the August RiseUp.net Newsletter ~
I once worked at an agency in which the big boss was always lurking around. You never knew where she would pop up next. To make matters worse, there was the suspicion that there was a snitch or two within our ranks. The only way we workers could feel secure in talking about the big boss's iron fist manner of ruling the agency was to talk about it away from work with only our most trusted co-workers. This sort of atmosphere engendered paranoia. Workers didn't know who they could trust.
In a nation in which surveillance is becoming far more ubiquitous than some of the supposed crackpots even imagined, there are becoming fewer and fewer places a person can go to "get away from it." Once the web is complete, we will no longer have the space to "let our hair down." What is being created against our will is a manufactured state of paranoia. If the people can never be sure that we are not being watched or listened to, we will come to the point in which trust -- not paranoia - is a psychotic disorder!
As the birds of RiseUp make clear -- it's the very same point made by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four -- the whole point of mass surveillance is to control society. If you have misgivings about the power structure, you can't take the chance of articulating your concerns to others, lest the authorities get wind of it and whisk you away. If you can't freely share your thoughts, then you will think that you are the only one -- Gosh, something must be wrong with me!
With each person forced onto an island of isolation, there can be no movements for change.