Surveillance Fatigue

On my way home from Wal-Mart this week, I realized that I don’t see the security cameras anymore. They are still there but now they’re background noise. There are more oppressive cameras at the self-checkout lanes but I even fail to notice the giant monitors.

Camera surveillance is just one way that my privacy can be invaded. Earlier, my awareness of privacy was much more acute. I would use the Tor browser when visiting websites. I would monitor where I go on the open internet. I reflected on how my search queries might be analyzed and would self-censor before blogging anything too controversial. I used the privacy aware search engine DuckDuckGo. I would talk to friends about privacy. I even spent a semester studying privacy in an independent study with a privacy researcher at IUPUI.

In my trajectory on privacy, my alert level has gradually lessened. I’ve reached the point that I don’t notice obvious surveillance. However, I have some habits that stuck. I still use DuckDuckGo. I read privacy statements and TOS. I avoid my Gmail account. (However, now I’m bending on the convenience of using the Gmail address for login credentials. Three steps forward; two steps back.)

So that’s the point: I took my high level of awareness and have dropped off. I still have a few habits that have survived. But I reached a level of surveillance fatigue and I’ve lost my zeal for privacy. My behavior has changed but not by much.

The problem with surveillance fatigue is that when future technology changes require me to upgrade my vigilance, I won’t. I will recall the amount of effort it took previously and feel the new effort is too much work. I’ll reject small changes that objectively aren’t very burdensome. In effect, I overshot the balance point. I know there are things I can do to improve my privacy but I don’t do them. I’m complacent about the issue. My experience at a high alert has inoculated me from becoming more careful again.

Facebook and other surveillance services bank on this effect. They creep into newer and newer privacy assaults yet people ignore the danger. Users’ initial alarm has drifted into impotence. The surveillance continues to spread without adequate push-back.

COVID enabled strong actions at first, but now the memory of their consequences inoculates people from taking any action. If mask wearing is a habit, it could persist. Because avoiding bars and sit-down restaurants its easy, I won’t think about them when deciding what to have for dinner.

People’s threshold of willingness has drooped and they’ve fallen into the fatigue trap. They won’t take small but effective changes because they get conflated with the big changes that were hard.

Surveillance fatigue is an example of a common pattern in human behavior. A flurry of activity can respond to an emergent situation. However, the responses will gradually fall off. Unless the effective steps become a habit, privacy will continue to erode. Unless the balance point is reached with COVID precautions, it will continue to spread.

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