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.

Six Degrees of COVID-19

How many degrees of separation are you from COVID-19?

There are different ways to count degrees of separation–the number of relationships one person is away from another.

Generally, everyone is six degrees of separation from any other person. You can reach any person on earth by crossing six social connections. The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon asks for an actor’s shortest path of costarring roles to reach Kevin Bacon.

There are also degrees of COVID-19 phenomena. They measure how many patients are different degrees of separation from you. In early January, most of the patients were 6 degrees of separation from me. As the pandemic continues, the world is shrinking. When did the degrees of COVID-19 change to 5 for most patients? As the pandemic spreads, that number will get smaller and smaller.

An interesting psychological transition must happen before a disease feels real and threatening. People could be three or four degrees of separation from many COVID-19 patients and not realize it. Cognitively, the number of cases in the US is just a big number without emotional impact. However, knowing your connection to those people might be more visceral.

I’m sure that when people are one or two degrees of separation from COVID-19, the disease will seem to be an obvious threat. The degrees of separation for people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 will be higher, but could be more impactful for people who pooh-pooh the disease’s risks.

I hope that the more macabre statistic, the degrees of COVID-19 deaths will not get low. Leaders must not be heedless because the possibility is real. Decisive action can keep the Degrees of COVID-19 from drifting down further.

How many sick people are 3 or 4 degrees of separation from you is hard to gauge. It’s a crucial fact that is hidden by case counts.

COVID-19 might be a tsunami, but we can always move farther from the shore. Animations that show projections of how my degrees of COVID-19 are changing could be a meaningful display of how close the tsunami is to me.

Little Kindnesses

A clockThe COVID-19 pandemic makes me think deeply about my mortality and the mortality of the people I love. Making it to the next birthday seems more of an accomplishment now than last year. I don’t know what will happen between now and December. Who that I know will have become sick? Who will have never recovered? How will I deal with so much grief?

I think about what to do while I’m at home. (I won’t say “stuck at home.” It’s a privilege that I have a home.) Fortunately, I’ve got projects to keep me busy. I can focus on them more intently if I’m not thinking about going out for groceries, planning my next trip to Fort Wayne and looking for the best gas price.

With heavy feelings so infectious, it’s easy to forget the humanity of the people I don’t know. But, it is more important than ever to recognize my neighbor as like me. The one who lives in the next apartment or the stranger who comes to the store at the same time as me. The neighbor that is the “other” I don’t trust. In this crisis, there is no “other” in the eyes the coronavirus. I don’t know their names, who their kids are and whether putting food on the table is a burden. But, they are all facing the same end as me.

Unity in suffering.

It’s more important to me than ever to do small kindnesses for the people I meet. They might be hungry, angry at the people stuck inside with them, lonely for human contact that they’re trying to distance themselves from. I don’t know what they face, but I can be confident that it is hard. I can acknowledge their burden with respect and not add to it.

I’m alone in my house, but I don’t feel lonely. I am busy and can talk to a person or two each day by phone. It is kind for someone to take or return my call. I try to do the same.

The mathematics are against us. Italy is an example of the nations a few days ahead of us that is suffering badly. Others countries that have been taking stronger measures appear to be keeping up. I want to not add to the suffering in my country. Being willing to do whatever I need to is a way to do that.

If the guidance I get is not based in the epidemiology and science, I can be confident that ones providing that guidance don’t value my life or the life of my loved ones. I don’t have time for that.