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Mass surveillance: breakdown of the human essence

Staff writer Salvatrice D’Anna Campo on the threat of mass surveillance and production of discriminatory algorithms

“You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every moment scrutinized.” – Orwell, 1984

When the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, should alarms go off in our heads, should we begin to feel troubled? Orwell’s words feel more true than ever before. 1984, a novel described as a dystopian society, is eerily similar to the world we find ourselves in today. Orwell’s purpose was to warn British and US citizens of the threat of mass surveillance.

I was reminded of his warnings with the current uproar in the media over the spyware technology, Pegasus. It was developed by NSO Group, an Israeli firm, with the purpose of breaching devices without the need for a single click from the target. The New York Times has divulged numerous documents revealing the FBI’s acquisition of the technology. Although officials claimed the Pegasus was acquired to investigate how enemies could use it, this did not calm the masses due to the pattern of surveillance experienced and other democracies’ adoption of mass spyware.

The need for espionage to ensure safety has been revealed to be a slippery slope when one can abuse the corresponding resources for one’s self-interest. Greece has also come under scrutiny for their alleged use of Predator, a less sophisticated spyware than Pegasus, used to target dissidents and journalists. The crisis has been deemed the “Greek Watergate”. The deputy minister to the prime minister, Ioannis Oikonoou, disapproved of the premise that journalists were being suppressed by saying that “democratic values like the rule of law, freedom of speech and transparency are at the very heart of what the government of Greece stands for.” Nonetheless, journalists’ surveillance has caused Greece to become the lowest ranked country in all of Europe in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom resort, moving from 70th to 108th place.

Beyond the socio-political impact, I believe surveillance should be critiqued through a moral standard. Philosopher Kevin Macnish expresses his concern over the limited philosophical perspective, stating that “it is curious that a practice as controversial and central to human life as surveillance has received so little sustained ethical reflection”. In the same line of thought, Cecile Fabre published a book in 2022 titled Spying Through a Glass Darkly: The Ethics of Espionage and Counter-Intelligence. The question she engages with is whether effective mass surveillance is ethically justified.

Fabre contends that mass surveillance technology produces algorithmic systems which worsen existing unfair inequalities. In order to process the huge amounts of data collected daily, systems resort to technology and the production of algorithms. Algorithms are not wholly objective and can operate based on biases, which stereotypes can be used to process data. For example, facial recognition systems in public spaces can capture your image and then upload it to computer software programs that can make a series of predictions, such as how likely you are to commit a crime.

The intrusion over our right to privacy and other civil liberties makes me question how far technology can go to influence and modify our sense of self. From an existentialist perspective, mass surveillance and the production of algorithms can shape how we view our own sense of self. For instance, 20th-century French existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, believed that existence precedes essence, which implies a major implication over the role of technology. The existential philosopher’s claim signifies that there is no predetermined essence of people, rather it is defined by how individuals decide what courses of action to take in their own life. Overall, existentialism stresses that there is no prescribed meaning to life, instead it is our own will to subscribe purpose to our life that derives meaning. ‘Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be’.

What does Sartre’s conception tell us about our sense of self when our experiences and free will operate in a technological standard? Our understanding of the self is being tethered to computerized sequences. Through mass surveillance resources such as CCTV and data collection through media platforms, greater responsibility is being placed on algorithms to determine how policy-makers shape decisions that impact societal structures such as criminal justice systems, education, and allocation of resources. Algorithms are taking precedence over the entirety of human beings. As people take a backseat in their own lives, what purpose can we derive to culminate meaning in our lives? Mass surveillance and data collection is reducing our essence to a set of algorithms.

Although there has been a recent uproar over the adoption of Pegasus spyware, this has not been a sudden shift, but a steady and consistent evolution. The impact of mass surveillance goes beyond pivotal media stories such as the Edward Snowden scandal. Today, citizens’ freedoms have been reduced in several ways, and we are accomplices of it through the use of social networks, CCTVs, credit cards and more.

Although it may seem covert, such technological tracking is shaping our world and how we view ourselves in algorithmic epistemology. I realize that evolution and technological development is inevitable and can indeed have positive outcomes in facilitating various tasks. However, I do invite reflection on how far we allow mass surveillance and other technologies to take precedence over our own freedom and independence to act. As Orwell emphasizes, “power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” How far can algorithms chip away at the human essence to the point that we become mere subjects in a calculating system?



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