Why Does it Matter if I'm Watched?

If surveillance helps us catch criminals, many naturally wonder why we would want to limit its use. After all, if an innocent man did not realize he was being watched, he could hardly be considered worse off as a result. If anything, he may be safer and proven to be innocent of any wrongdoing. The proliferation of Bentham's panopticon as the universal image of surveillance has had an impact on how we see it. It's made us largely focus on the feelings of being watched, not the power dynamics of surveillance itself. The issue with surveillance, in my mind, isn't that it is ineffective or psychologically harms people. My concern stems from the fact that it places excessive power in the hands of a small number of people.

When revolutionaries or political dissidents emerge, those wielding the power of surveillance, governmental organizations, have a tendency to leverage their tools to suppress them. As Julie Cohen explains in Configuring the Networked Self: "Privacy’s goal, simply put, is to ensure that the development of subjectivity and the development of communal values do not proceed in lockstep." In the cases of true revolutionaries, surveillance can breed poor decision-making by those who wield its power. Such was the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., who received an infamous “suicide letter” from the FBI.

The FBI’s attempts to track Martin Luther King began early on and grew in intensity over time. A specific FBI memo even referred to MLK as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” The leader of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, proved especially persistent, and he received the permission of the attorney general to tap King’s phones and track his conversations. While the initial goal of tapping the phones was to find communist connections, the FBI agents instead discovered evidence of King’s adulterous affairs. Eventually, the FBI used this information to threaten King with the destruction of his reputation via an anonymous letter. In order to avoid such an outcome, the letter implied that King should commit suicide.

The FBI’s widespread surveillance of MLK’s activities may have fallen under the Fourth Amendment at the time as a “reasonable” search, but the case demonstrates how skewed social values can influence what might be considered “reasonable” under different conditions. Assuming their surveillance was comprehensive, covering multiple time periods, it might also be classified as a search under Mosaic Theory of the 4th Amendment. Ultimately, the case appears to be driven by the personal motives of J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the FBI, not probable cause or reasonable suspicions.

The ultimate use of extramarital affair evidence in order to shame King to suicide is clearly unacceptable, but it is demonstrative of the power of unchecked surveillance. In a perfect world, perfectly just institutions, immune to social pressures and the tendency to collect unnecessary data, would carry out surveillance. In such a world, perhaps surveillance could truly promote more security without compromising privacy so blatantly. Instead, individuals, each of whom is as vulnerable to influence as any other, carry out the activities involved in surveillance. This reality necessitates the proper regulation of such activities in order to limit the negative impacts of such skewed power dynamics. Surveillance can save lives, it’s true, but as any kid who’s seen Spiderman knows, “With great power comes great responsibility.”