Remember Big Brother, the dictator of the state of Oceania in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” who uses total surveillance to control the population? Spooky, right? Nothing we’d ever accept, right?
Well, sure, until we’re scared, and ready to turn to government to protect us from what we can’t protect ourselves from as individuals. When we’re afraid, public safety surveillance doesn’t bother us as much, because between preserving civil liberties and survival, survival wins, hands down.
A CBS/New York Times public opinion survey taken after the Boston Marathon bombings offers evidence of this fundamental truth of human nature: safety first and everything else follows. Eight out of 10 Americans say surveillance cameras in public places are a good idea. That’s not surprising, given the way the government publicized the surveillance pictures of the two bombers, even though those images came from private surveillance cameras and had nothing to do with catching the bombers.
That’s a point the American Civil Liberties Union makes as it opposes more Big Brother surveillance. The ACLU argues cameras that watch us everywhere — in public, where there is no legal right to or expectation of privacy — don’t deter crime. But in terms of public acceptance, it doesn’t matter if they work. If it feels like government surveillance makes us safer, we’ll support it. We only see surveillance as an invasion of privacy if we feel safe. And these days, many people don’t.
Consider the experience in the UK, where there are now 1.85 million cameras watching public places in a closed circuit television system. That’s a stunning 2.8 public and private surveillance cameras for every 100 people.
Some of them even have speakers, so officials monitoring the cameras can yell things like, “Hey you! Stop that!” if they see someone fighting, or littering.
Omnipresent surveillance is accepted by the majority of Britons, because the system arose out of the omnipresent threat of terrorist bombings in the 1970s and 80s. It doesn’t matter that terrorism is no longer so frequent in the UK. It still happens often enough to keep people worried, and that’s enough to keep support for surveillance strong.
Just how worried we are is reflected in how much government surveillance we are willing to tolerate. Most people do not support private surveillance; in those settings, we feel less exposed, better able to protect ourselves. When we feel safer, the seesaw of our emotions tilts the other way, and independent control over our own lives carries more weight than fear.
Evidence of that appears in a new CNN/Time/ORC survey, released lastweek. The poll found that while 81 percent of people are fine with more surveillance cameras watching us in public (which is 18 percent higher than it was right after the September 11 attacks), only 40 percent are willing to give up civil liberties in general, and only 38 percent say it would be OK for the government to eavesdrop on our phone calls or intercept our email.
People are arguing their case for more or less government surveillance with lots of facts, and great passion. But there is no right or wrong here, just our values and feelings, and this clear demonstration that the way we perceive and respond to risk is inherently affective and subjective. What will determine what we do about surveillance, as is the case with any risk, will ultimately have less to do with the facts than with how worried we feel.
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- Poll: Most Mass. Residents Back Shutdown Of Area For Marathon Manhunt
- Poll: Most Americans Are OK With Surveillance Cameras
- Boston Official: Surveillance Image Shows Marathon Bombing Suspect