Newsworthy: Nicky Hager and L.J. Ritchie talk surveillance

Anoushka surveillance imageL.J. Ritchie’s upcoming young adult novel Like Nobody’s Watching focuses on issues of surveillance at high school. L.J. Ritchie sat down with political journalist Nicky Hager, author of Dirty Politics, to talk about the ethical considerations and boundaries of public and private surveillance.

Interested? I thought so. Let’s get topical.


L.J.: ‘If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care who sees me?’ Author Cory Doctorow once described watching his young daughter at play, noticing that she took far more risks in her make-believe when she wasn’t aware he was watching. Although there was nothing wrong with either mode of play, the knowledge that she was being watched encouraged her to conform to what she felt was expected of her. What are your thoughts on the effects of surveillance beyond policing ‘wrong’ behaviour?


Nicky: The claim ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ is like a slogan from a police state. I agree with the writers who say that privacy (like freedom of speech) is an essential part of a person being able to develop their personality and beliefs. It’s as crucial and fundamental as that. Privacy is about being able to develop a sense of self, being able to develop our own ideas and figuring out our relationship. Sometimes it is about very private things that we want to keep secret: family problems, sexuality, special likes and dislikes, and fears and hopes that gradually make us who we are. I know, as a writer on intelligence, that most people aren’t being spied on. But if the idea or fear exists that our lives aren’t private, it undermines the vital stuff about who we are. (Also, by the way, the loudmouths who say ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ would actually be enraged if their privacy was breached).


L.J.: A common metaphor for the modern surveillance state is the Panopticon – an 18th century idea for a prison in which prisoners had no way to tell when they were under surveillance, so they would have to assume they were always being watched and police their own behaviour. Some argue that this model is obsolete and we are now in the era of the ‘panoptiswarm’. They say that surveillance technology is now so widely distributed – in the form of cameras, phones and other consumer products – that it no longer makes sense to imagine a model in which a central authority figure watches everybody because now everybody participates in the watching as well as being watched. Do you think that the widespread availability of recording devices represents a democratisation of surveillance or does it still end up reinforcing traditional power structures?


Nicky: Surveillance isn’t being democratised. Or only a little bit (almost anyone can buy surveillance equipment off the internet now, for what that is worth, but that doesn’t democratise the ongoing business of state surveillance).


L.J.: Surveillance presented on TV rarely addresses issues of privacy. I often see this in crime dramas where the targets are presented as criminals and we are not expected to extend them empathy, and the users of surveillance tools rarely misinterpret the information or make mistakes. This reinforces a popular understanding of surveillance as a moral tool. What aspects of surveillance would you like to see reflected more often in fiction?


Nicky: Let me say which stories about surveillance I would like to see less often in fiction. First, stories that show surveillance as vital to protect against super-evil: stopping the fanatical terrorists from blowing up the commuter train, etc. These stories essentially rerun intelligence agency propaganda which claims that the primary purpose of all mass surveillance systems is to get the bad guys, but this is not true. Most intelligence-collection by far is against politicians and governments, diplomats and economic intelligence, or military targets, competition and conflicts between nations. Only a tiny proportion is about, for instance, terrorist threats. That’s what they do. Talking about terrorism is largely a cover so they don’t have to justify what they really do. So the fiction is perpetuating unhelpful propaganda. However, the fictional pictures of surveillance that I dislike the most are ones that make it seem that everyone is being watched all the time: CCTV cameras, satellites, monitoring of the internet, huge databases of everyone’s lives… especially in a country like New Zealand where this just isn’t true. If you have a P lab or you have an Arabic name and write angry letters to John Key, someone might be taking an interest in you. But, luckily, most people aren’t being watched, so I hate it when fiction, combined with careless media discussion, creates fear for ordinary people that doesn’t need to be there. This brings us back to the subject of privacy. It is awful if people needlessly wonder if someone is reading their private email, or decides they’d better not be involved in politics, or basically shrink down and limit who they are because of an unnecessary fear of surveillance. Because, unfortunately, the fear that we are being watched does almost as much damage as the reality would.