Mass Surveillance and the Citizen Image

Daniel Tippens

In discussions of mass surveillance, it is often taken as a given that the right to privacy protects something intrinsically valuable, viz, one’s privacy. But that privacy is inherently important is something that many people don’t take seriously. “Why should I care?” they say, “so long as I have done nothing wrong? If we assume that the government is operating benevolently — and not in a biased or overreaching fashion, how could mass surveillance be a problem?” What’s wrong with mass surveillance in theory?

It is difficult to argue against this in practice. Why should you care if strangers who work for the government know what you do in your day to day life, so long as they are operating benevolently? It’s not as if you know each other personally. Their knowledge wouldn’t affect your  livelihood, barring some extraordinary event where you step out of line. 

Or so the train of thought goes.

Here I will offer a defense of the right to privacy in terms of a check on power. Mass surveillance, I contend, erodes the citizenry’s ability to maintain what I’ll call a citizen image with respect to the state, and that this is problematic even if the state is operating benevolently. When there is an asymmetry between how much the state knows about the citizenry and the citizenry about the state — such that the asymmetry is in the state’s favor — the citizenry loses the capacity to bluff the government. This allows for easier state-intervention in the citizen’s lives, which everyone ought to be concerned about.


The blowfish is a well-known creature given its ability to ward off predators simply by inducing fear from its size. This phenomenon of bluffing is one that all of us engage in. Sometimes we do so in tussels on the playground, where we use strong language in place of muscular strength. Other times we bluff, when older, in competitive jobs where we will try to stand out with an incredible resume, even if it doesn’t track our level of competence. In other words we all project an image to various parties at some point in our lives. 

Suppose that you purchase a muscle suit and wear it beneath your clothing each day. You spent a lot of money on the suit and so people take you to be well-built. In such a case, people will be less likely to attempt mugging you. When your public image is one of strength, you will be safer from predators that roam the streets. But if thugs know about your little secret, then the image no longer works. Indeed, your image may be worse — people will know that you’re a bluffer. The blowfish effect is certainly dead. Secret-keeping, then, is important for an individual’s ability to bluff.

Now consider Ted Kacyzinski — the Unabomber — who wreaked havoc upon universities and airlines with homemade explosives. Before he was caught, two things were true: nobody knew exactly how he was pulling off these attacks — he maintained that secret — but also he was anonymous; he could be anyone. The public, then, formed an image of him as terrifying, persistent, highly intelligent, and among us.

But when he was caught, his public image faded — he was just an ordinary man (indeed, he seemed a bit nerdy too), and the secrets behind his attacks were discovered. The fear that had come from his image dissolved, for we knew who he was — he couldn’t be among us — and his tactics were known and so now preventable. When he lost his anonymity and the secrets behind his attacks were revealed, he could no longer bluff. The ability to keep secrets and remain anonymous, then, are two primary components of human bluffing. Two ways to induce fear in another party, perhaps to wreak havoc, as in the case of Kacyzinski, but perhaps also to simply ward off intrusions.

Mass surveillance erodes the ability of the public, I contend, to maintain a citizen image with respect to the state. The state — those individuals acting as state agents — has some impression of what the public is like, and how they operate. They have some impression of the power behind the citizenry — how coordinated are they? How much dedication do they have toward a cause? Who is doing what? 

Mass surveillance gives the state the capacity to erode the image a citizenry is giving off — it has the capacity to discover secrets and dissolve anonymity. The right to privacy, then, protects the ability of the governed to maintain a citizen image with respect the state. In this way, the governed can induce fear in the governing, and ward off intrusions by the state. Since the state has de facto power over the citizenry (it has military forces), this operates as a check on power.


To illustrate, consider the recent case of the May 30th protests in Seattle, over the death of George Floyd. The protests, according to the police, started out peacefully, but eventually turned violent, leading to damaged police property and injured individuals. All parties involved — both police and demonstrators — were wearing masks. 

The Associated Press reported on July 3, 2020, that police were issuing subpoenas for photos and video of the protests in order to identify who had set police vehicles and stolen some of their firearms. The police were seeking to unmask anonymous individuals. This is problematic, for which of these two images is more frightening for state agents?

When the individuals could be anyone, the answer is clear. But when the unmasking happens and ordinary individuals are shown, then like Kacyzinski, the jig is up, and state-agent fear will go down. If state-agents had perfect mass surveillance technology, then no citizen image could ever be in control of the people. It is worth noting that a public image can be damaging if it is not under the control of the people who have it. If, for example, the police were able to paint unmasked protestors as violent, then the citizenry may actually have fear of one another. The citizen image would be damaging.

It is also worth noting that a citizen image can be used as a provocation. Suppose that you are Bruce Lee — incredibly strong and adept at martial arts — and are looking for a fight. So, you wear loose clothing so that your public image is one of weakness; you look like an individual with a small stature. Suppose also that, in looking for a fight, you shout insults at passersby in a rough neighborhood. Clearly, you’d be more likely to encounter someone who wouldn’t take your insults kindly, and would move to defend their honor, given your small stature. You can provoke an attack. 

The same is true of protestors who may want to show that the state-violence is extreme. If you shout insults at police and wear clothing that makes you appear easily-defeated, they may be more likely to move in on a crowd and display that they will engage in overreaches of power, when given the opportunity. Such a move can be beneficial to a cause, damaging the state image.

If the governed lose control over their citizen image, they lose the capacity to bluff. If they cannot bluff, there is less reason for the state to refrain from intruding on the citizenry. The right to privacy, then, is an important one even in theory. It allows the governed the capacity to keep secrets and remain anonymous, facilitating their ability to project a powerful citizen image, “blow-fishing” the state. Even if the government were benevolent, the citizen image keeps that government at bay. Like the norm of citizen solidarity, then, the citizen image maintains a healthy space between the governed and the governing.


It is also important to remember that the state can bluff as well. If the citizenry can know nothing about how the state works, or who is doing what, but the state knows everything about the citizenry, then the state can bluff the people, adding to their stock of power.

Consider how the Snowden leaks didn’t just reveal that the government was spying on millions of Americans domestically and millions of people abroad, it also revealed the extent to which top secret classification was ubiquitous. Indeed, even mundane emails which asked things like what was for lunch that day were considered top secret. The citizenry can’t even know how the government eats lunch, much less their identities behind masks (the police force, for example, wears anonymizing uniforms and masks at a number of protests). I contend, then, that the laws surrounding when a top secret classification can be given ought to be revised and the bar raised. Otherwise, the state may bluff the citizenry, creating a greater asymmetry in power between the governed and the governing.

The right to a citizen image through the right to privacy, and the deflation of the state’s image through fewer top secret classifications, then, imply that mass surveillance ought to be the other way around. It is the people who ought to be spying on the state, for this ensures that the power remains in the hands of the governed.

9 thoughts on “Mass Surveillance and the Citizen Image

  1. Hi Dan,
    I think your essay makes an important point but the problem goes deeper than that. More later.
    You say
    The Associated Press reported on July 3, 2020, that police were issuing subpoenas for photos and video of the protests in order to identify who had set police vehicles and stolen some of their firearms. The police were seeking to unmask anonymous individuals. This is problematic” .

    Why is it problematic in this particular instance?
    The perpetrators were guilty of criminal acts(setting fire to vehicles and stealing firearms). Should they not be brought to justice? In that case is it not necessary that they should be identified?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The naked runner phobia

    Let me introduce my understanding of the innate need for privacy by telling you the true story of one of my dreams. By way of introduction, you need to know that I am a keen endurance runner and most days can be seen out on a long run.

    I have several times had this dream with some variations in the detail. I am out on a long run and find myself running with unaccustomed ease over longer distances than before. It is a euphoric experience. And then as I stride along, I glance down and find I am running naked. It seems that somehow I had neglected to dress before running. I am mortified, and deeply ashamed to be seen running in public completely naked. But what to do? I can’t stop. It seems all I can do is keep running and brazen things out by pretending that there was nothing unusual until I finally got home. But this is a long run and I will endure lots of shame before I get home.

    So what does this say, relevant to your theme? Quite a lot actually. First note how I introduced myself as an endurance runner. It says that this is an important part of my identity which I broadcast, looking for affirmation. Then my dream says I fear being stripped of my pretensions and being unmasked as someone wholly inadquate. I cope by doubling down and redoubling my efforts at maintaining my identity, by continuing the run as if there was nothing untoward..

    Realistic identity formation is a vital part of healthy psychological development. It shapes how we perceive ourselves. It shapes how we act to maintain this perception. It shapes how others perceive ourselves and it shapes the expectation others have of us. Gaps in these perceptions and expectations are what cause us fear, pain and shame.

    For this reason we maintain a private inner world. It is our sanctum where we stand naked but where we are protected from the judgemental stare of others. For this reason we practice limited self disclosure, protecting ourselves from judgement and allowing us to project our desired persona without fear of contradiction.

    This process, I maintain, stands at the heart of our psychological need for protection from surveillance. That is because we have no way of knowing what surveillance reveals about our private lives and thus fear being revealed with all of our most sensitive vulnerabilities, destroying our chosen identities and exposing us to the judgement of others.

    We fear becoming the naked runner.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I should point out that this is an inchoate fear that most people don’t verbalize. They experience the fear without having the insightful understanding of why they fear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Peter,

    With regard to your first comment, I think there is a distinction between unmasking someone privately and doing so publicly. The latter, I think, shouldn’t be done in a polity precisely for reasons of maintaining a citizen image. The problem is that citizens are unmasked publicly a lot, and it reminds me of Orwell’s 1984 where criminals are executed routinely just to display state power.

    I agree with you that we have an innate fear of being seen naked. However, most people don’t fear being seen naked by a stranger in a government building. Well, they do fear being seen naked (see the John Oliver clip on mass surveillance), but they don’t fear having their search engine history reviewed, or their latest purchases. It is these latter things that the state still ought not have access to, for they show *how we work,* *how we do things.* In this way, the state has the ability to see through the citizen image, and will not fear them as deeply, for they see us for the ordinary people we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think there is a distinction between unmasking someone privately and doing so publicly.

    Yes, for the reason below.

    but they don’t fear having their search engine history reviewed, or their latest purchases.

    Because this is invisible to them. But this would change if you received a phone call from a business you had dealings with and they showed intimate knowledge of this. It would be unsettling and feel downright creepy.

    The difference between your and my interpretations is that you believe the citizen must maintain a public image so that he might not appear vulnerable in the eyes of the state. I, on the other hand, believe he must maintain a public image in order that
    1) he does not ‘feel‘ vulnerable,
    2) and he does not become vulnerable in the eyes of his fellows.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I actually agree with you, but the problem is that I have trouble convincing people of your claims (1) and (2), so I decided to go another route. But yes, a public image can function as a kind of armor against other individuals. A good public image doesn’t just make an individual *feel* less vulnerable, it also makes him less vulnerable. Remember the muscle suit case mentioned in the essay. I.e I think we are in agreement 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I want to expand a little on the naked runner phobia. Consider the phrases “make eye contact“, “make eyes at someone“, eye someone, “stare at someone“. Or someone is “shifty“, “will not make eye contact“, “drops their gaze“, “averts their gaze” . Or perhaps someone looked at me candidly, or with a steely gaze.

    I was taught by my parents that I should never stare at someone. “Don’t stare“, my mother would admonish me. Or someone might ask accusingly, “why are you staring at me?” and in some localities that would be a dangerous thing to do.

    We all look at each other but it is veiled gaze where we quickly avert our eyes when we think the other person will return our stare.We maintain this polite pretence that we are not looking intently at each other because we know it causes discomfort. Or we may try to “catch someone’s eye” as a prelude to social contact. We may “make eyes at someone” to show romantic interest or indulge in flirtation. We will hold someone’s eyes during an earnest conversation.

    Our eyes play a very special role in social interaction. We are highly skilled in reading eye contact, asessing people’s attitudes, intentions, emotions and especially their trustworthiness. And it is a vital skill that we use to navigate the maze of social interaction. We are very good at doing it. We are able to read exceedingly small and subtle details from the eyes of other people. When we catch someone’s eyes we hold their attention, starting a complex process of communication and signalling. Eye contact is vital for interpersonal interaction.

    Now consider surveillance. We are being looked at and that knowledge activates or primes our deepest social interaction instincts and skills. So we instinctively wish to gaze back in order than we can use our skills to assess their attitudes and intentions, as reflected in their eyes.

    But we don’t see a person. We can’t read their eyes. We see the blank, soulless stare of the camera lens. That is so unsettling because it lies outside the finely honed abilities of our species to read eye contact. Who is behind the lens? What are they thinking? What are their judgements? What are their intentions? We can answer none of these questions. This activates our tendency for suspicion which quickly cascades into mistrust, whether justified or not.

    And so trust is eroded. This matters a great deal because trust is the most fundamental element that binds society and enables our extraordinary capacity for coordination and collaboration. Loss of trust has the capacity to destroy society.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Something that worries me about teaching remotely, this semester, is that the class lectures are now all recorded. It was bad enough having a camera in our classroom, but now there will be a big red “recording” light on the screen, reminding everyone that some anonymous person has the capacity to see and listen to what we’ve discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s