Does Surveillance Alter our Behaviour?

How our environment shapes our behaviour

Freedom is something we all think we have. If you don’t have it, you almost certainly want it. It is something that we crave as humans, but is it possible to say that we are truly free?

Jean-Jacques Rosseau famously said that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” He was referring to the general population in France during the Ancien Regime, but his thoughts still hold true today.

We are now at a point where almost every aspect of our lives is under surveillance. From the plethora of CCTV cameras in our cities to the data we send every day to the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, we are under constant surveillance.

While most of us have nothing to fear from this, the majority of us, I hope, are not planning to commit heinous crimes, it does raise some important questions from a philosophical angle.

Does the constant and almost omnipotent surveillance in society cause us to modify our behaviour? And if so, does this limit our freedom or not?


Whether we think we have it or not, none of us truly possesses freedom. We are free to do as we please, but only within the constraints of the law. If I objected to my neighbour having a better car than me, I am not within rights to go and take it. We are governed by laws which preclude us from doing so.

Thankfully, the majority of us agree that stealing from your neighbour is morally bankrupt. As such, we do not feel as if this impinges upon our freedom because it is an act we would not countenance. We are happy to be constrained by the law in this manner. In fact, it is quite comforting, as it allows us to live our lives with a certain degree of security.

The power of the law is all-encompassing, but the majority are content with it. It is explicit in what is allowed and what isn’t. If we feel that the law has become outdated in any way shape or form, we are free to challenge it and debate in our parliaments and legal processes whether they need to be reformed or not.

As long as the law remains just, honest and clear in the power it exerts over us, we are happy to consent to it. We also not feel that it constrains our freedom when we do so.

While we may be free in this sense, we are not truly free from the apparatus of the state. In the modern day, our movements are more carefully scrutinised than ever before.

In the UK, it is estimated that there are 1.85 million CCTV cameras operating in the country. With a population of around 60 million, that’s one camera for every 32 people. Of those 1.85 million cameras, at least 51,600 of them are operated by local authorities.

While this may not be an issue for the majority of us, it does raise some important questions. Do we need to be monitored so closely? What exactly are these cameras capturing on a day-to-day basis? Should I be worried about mass surveillance?

The common argument is that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear from increased surveillance. While this sounds logical on the surface, it is only true to an extent. Mass surveillance of this kind invokes images of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, where Big Brother is an omnipresent presence in society.

Nearly every orifice of public life is riddled with cameras. The only place to escape the constant surveillance is to head out into the countryside. Even then, there is still the fear of being watched. Orwell describes the spectre of surveillance in his novel as such:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live… in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

We are a long way from society mimicking the worst of the excesses of Big Brother, but we are creeping ever closer. Constant surveillance does have an impact on our freedom, whether we think it does or not. If you walk past a bank of cameras or spot yourself being filmed, you are likely to alter your behaviour.

When this happens our minds no longer become a place of freedom, but they become a prison. We may not be being watched by these cameras, but because we feel like we are, our behaviour changes as a result.

Nowhere was this was more evident than in the prison known as the Panopticon.

The Panopticon

The Panopticon was a prison designed by the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. He conceived it as the “perfect prison.” What made the prison ‘perfect’ was that the cells were arranged in a circle around a central tower.

Within this tower, guards would be able to watch prisoners at all times. In reality, this wouldn’t be the case. The guard would not be able to watch everyone all the time, but that wasn’t the point.

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Presidio Modelo, an example of a Panopticon prison.

As the prisoners would be under the impression that they were constantly under watch, and with no way of knowing whether they were or not, they would modify their behaviour as a result. Bentham described the Panopticon in a letter, as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.

The beauty of Bentham’s prison was that the external expression of power such as the concrete walls and metal bars had become internalised in the prisoner’s minds. The mind was now imprisoned as well as the physical self.

Although no Panopticon was built in Bentham’s lifetime, and barely any since, that has not stopped debate raging about the idea. Bentham envisioned the Panopticon as a rational and enlightened solution to societal problems, his idea has come to be seen in a more insidious light.

The Panopticon has no become seen as an instrument to observe and normalise behaviour in society. Instead of operating as a solution to societal problems, it instead operates as a power mechanism. The philosopher, Michel Foucault, was a believer of this theory.

He argues that the Panopticon is a figure of modern architectural power that utilises surveillance technology to create a prison in one’s mind:

“On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalisable mechanism of ‘panopticism’.”

Foucault references quarantine procedures in response to the bubonic plague at the end of the seventeenth century. Although this predates the conception of the Panopticon, it mimics the control dynamic.

A plague-ridden town would be partitioned with each house locked. Guards would be located on the end of each street creating a feeling of constant surveillance similar in nature to the prison Bentham would conceive decades later.

With the feeling of constant visibility utilised as power, chains, bars and locks are no longer necessary for domination. The mere threat of surveillance is enough to alter the behaviour of society. Those in power may be watching, but those around you are watching too, reinforcing the power dynamic.

This is all well and good, but what does it mean for society, nowadays? What effect does it have on our daily lives? The answer, in short, is a lot!

The Prison of The Mind

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Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

While we may not feel like we are in a prison, we are certainly not in the Panopticon, it is true that more of our behaviour and movements are monitored more than ever before.

Foucault argued that we are all in a kind of Panopticon, we have all started to modify our behaviour to please the external powers that may, or not, be watching. Nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace.

At my old job, we had to clock in and out of work on a daily basis. We started at 7 am, but it was expected that we would arrive earlier. As we clocked into our employee ID into our telephones, the times we logged in would be accessible to our manager.

This simple fact makes it more likely that you will follow the rules and not arrive late. We also had an allowance for lunch and toilet breaks, any deviation over these time limits would be met with questions about where we were and what we were doing.

This simple act of surveillance, whether utilised or not, is enough to subtly modify your behaviours. The fact that our managers may not be monitoring our arrival times was irrelevant, the threat of them doing so was enough to modify our behaviour.

This is a subtle invasion of our mind, but an invasion nonetheless. While it may seem natural and benign to us, there is potential for is an insidious undercurrent. The prevalence of CCTV cameras in Britain is one area.

The sheer number of cameras is not a worry if you are a law-abiding citizen. However, if a Fascist regime suddenly seized power the threat would become more real. If the regime decided to imprison those who did not agree with their views, the cameras would take on more significance.

The regime would not need to be watching everyone, because the threat of being watched would be enough to make most people conform, regardless of whether they agree with the regime or not. In this scenario, the Fascist regime has invaded our mind and controls us to a certain extent. Our behaviour would be modified to acquiesce to the regime.

As a result, our behaviour, choices and freedom have become bound to the whims of those who wield power. In some senses, regardless of who runs the country, our mind is always a prison. We consciously modify our behaviour due to the potential of surveillance.

We do this to fit in, be it at school, at home, or in the workplace. We often modify our behaviour to meet expectations that do not always meet our own. This has the potential to be good and bad.

We need to ask ourselves prescient questions when we feel this is taking place. Am I shaping my choices? Are you choosing something because you genuinely want to? Or are your choices because of the expectations of others you have internalised, who may or may not, be watching?

If you cannot answer these questions, then maybe your mind has already become imprisoned.

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