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Big brother

How Surveillance Is Changing Our Most Intimate Relationships

It’s not just Big Brother watching you. Your employer, your partner, your neighbors, and the brands you buy are increasingly watching your every move—even deputizing one another in this surveillance game.

When was the last time you were most alone? In your house with the shades drawn? Your car with the doors locked? What did you do without people around you, comfortably anonymous—spit, cry, watch porn, stalk your ex, pick at your skin? How did it feel to be free from other eyes?

But what of the eyes from above, from within, from the next table over at brunch as you gossip about your friend’s wedding? There are eyes on you as you sleep, as you have sex, as you go to the bathroom. When you’re in therapy, when you’re at church, when you masturbate.

Surveillance is everywhere in modern life. We are being watched by the state, by companies, by the medical establishment, and by private citizens turned vigilantes. It’s unclear whether true solitude exists for anyone but the extreme, off-grid few. But the effect is particularly pernicious when it comes to our relationships with our neighbors, with our employers, and with our romantic partners—three intimate connections that control a staggering proportion of our day-to-day experiences. And these relationships are increasingly being watched. When surveillance is a given, it might seem invisible, but as it spreads, it redraws the lines of our closest relationships.

State surveillance is nothing new—it’s a tradition running from ancient espionage to McCarthyism. “In order to not only protect national interests but also to create incentives and prerequisites for citizenship, institutions need to keep track of their charge,” Brian Hochman, professor of American Studies at Georgetown University, told me.

In the past century, however, the American relationship with surveillance has evolved dramatically—from wiretapping’s first use by private detectives and corporations to its use as a tool for law enforcement. Early concern over the use of wiretapping against union organizing waned in the late 1960s, Hochman wrote in his 2022 history of wiretapping, when racist “law and order” politics gained popularity. By 1974, almost 70 percent of Americans told pollsters they condoned state and federal law enforcement electronic surveillance when warranted, a jump from the 46 percent who felt the same in 1969.

The difference between mass surveillance today and that of the 1980s is the scale: Where once the state listened to individual conversations, the internet has multiplied the opportunities for surveillance and opened them up to new types of potential spies. It’s a “mass surveillance architecture,” Hochman told me, “an ecosystem we all live in that keeps track of us for purposes of power and profit.”

September 11 may have expanded surveillance in the name of national security, but the bigger change was the growing partnership between state and commercial interests. “The boundaries between state and nonstate entities are never really fixed in the history of surveillance in the United States. There’s always a kind of porousness,” Hochman said. “But in the early aughts, as a result of the politics of the post-9/11 moment and as a result of the technological capacities of web interconnectivity, the state-nonstate partnership begins to operate on scales that are scarcely fathomable from the perspective of even the 1980s and the 1990s.”

Surveillance is now a point of pride—especially the relationship between state and commerce. “You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway? You’re absolutely right,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul famously said in 2022, talking up her plan to bring riders back by installing more cameras for security purposes. (Past efforts to increase subway surveillance have not been particularly effective at deterring crime, especially violent crime.)

Surveillance increasingly serves commerce. The global video surveillance market this year is $53 billion and is expected to leapfrog to $83.3 billion by 2028. Security cameras mounted outside businesses can trace your movements as you go to buy tampons or marijuana, while services like Clear give you an expedited trip through airport security in exchange for biometric data. Cookies track the sites you click on so they can serve you ads.

Our health and well-being are similarly surveilled, for both state and commercial ends. 23andMe and similar DNA testing services catalog our very makeup—capturing detailed data on our ethnic background. Countless red and pink apps allow for tracking menstruation, pregnancy, and miscarriages—and represent an open opportunity for subpoena under increasingly restrictive and punitive abortion legislation. Wellness company For Them advertises “the first gender-tracking app for real time gender evolution using biometric data”—a particularly gruesome act of surveillance given the current threats against trans and nonbinary people.

In our homes, increasing evidence shows that our phones may surveil us with our apathetic consent—unless users navigate a labyrinthine collection of settings to revoke permission from each and every app, our phones could be at any moment running listening operations and using that voice data for commercial ends. Nowadays, a computer typically analyzes your data, but Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have each been exposed as previously using humans to analyze recordings of our conversations. And many of us are acutely aware of this surveillance: I hear from the people in my life that they put them in the other room during sex, but phones are fair game in the bathroom. We also opt into surveillance in personal relationships: My partner and I share our locations—I have known roommates who do the same, or adult children and their parents.

At any moment—outside on the street or in your bed—your image or speech could potentially be tracked by the state, commercial interests, or your neighbors. We are being watched. We are watching. And our relationships are bending themselves to fit into a new, hypersurveilled reality.

“For a hundred years, social scientists have studied the effects of being watched,” WAVE Lab director and Michigan State University professor Tara Behrend told me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a computer or a person.” Behrend studies surveillance—specifically in the workplace, where many of us spend the majority of our waking hours.

“People act differently when they’re being watched, and people need to have time when they’re offstage,” she said, speaking from over a decade of surveillance research. “Our brain does not have enough capacity to be on all the time and always thinking about whether people are watching us.” But at work in 2023, surveillance is practically a guarantee.

Worker surveillance in America dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when the work of production moved from skilled craftsmen to machine production and managers sought new ways to extract ever more value. Around the turn of the century, business efficiency strategists Fredrick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth turned to film and photography to track the movements slowing down the factory. “The Gilbreths attached small bulbs to workers’ fingertips and used slow-motion photographs to capture streaks of light that would help engineer a shorter, faster way to move from point A to B,” historian and social scientist Saima Akhtar wrote in The Washington Post in 2021. “Taylor advocated for total surveillance; he thought that the unobserved worker was an altogether inefficient one.” Taylor’s ideas influenced Henry Ford, who in 1914 subsidized an in-house motion picture studio to observe factory workers. While Ford’s assembly line innovations are well known, his dedication to efficiency also involved having managers monitor the homes of immigrant workers to keep them from unionizing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pandemic’s remote work brought a new interest in workplace surveillance: One report found 54 percent higher global demand for employee-monitoring software from March 2020 to June 2023 compared to 2019.

Some workplace surveillance, Behrend pointed out, is benevolent. Eye-movement trackers in trucks alert the driver to signs of fatigue with a warning to pull over, while radiation-exposure monitors collect data on people who work in radiation environments. These tactics are “saving lives by monitoring stats,” Behrend said.

But sometimes, as feared with artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, surveillance is used to train an algorithm to replace the employee—a relatively new concern for employees hoping to keep their jobs. Sometimes, as in the case of workplace wellness programs, it’s monitoring blood pressure, cholesterol, or weight in exchange for better health insurance coverage or premiums. Sometimes, the goal is to measure time spent in the office to make better choices on air conditioner use—as in the case of OccupEye, which marketed its heat-and-motion-sensor devices as helping organizations lower their energy costs. As Behrend explained, the OccupEye—which received wide media attention when it was rolled out at the Daily Telegraph offices, exposed the broad world of similar devices. From OccuEye’s black box to its competitors’ sensors and facial recognition, these devices typically morphed into tools for measuring who worked the most, not worker quality or dedication. They know, for example, when employees go to the bathroom.

Burnout is a serious concern with employees who are being surveilled. The work product changes too. “When people are watched, it changes their performance in really predictable ways,” Behrend says. Surveillance enhances responses: If you’re being watched while you do something you’re great at, you’ll usually get a little bit better. If you’re watched doing something you’re not particularly good at, you’ll get a little worse.

But there are behavioral changes that employers might not anticipate—behaviors that indicate a psychic toll. It’s almost entirely predictable, especially in individuals characterized by a high need for autonomy, Behrend said.

“Tell a 2-year-old, ‘Hey, don’t eat that cookie.’ What does that 2-year-old want to do? Only eat that cookie,” she told me. “Any attempt to restrict autonomy will mean that that person is now driven to reestablish control and reestablish autonomy any way they can.” An employee whose arrival time and departure time are closely monitored, for instance, may find something that’s not tracked and try to use that small activity to reassert power. They might clock in on time but then sit at their desk for an hour, accomplishing nothing, to regain a sense of personal control. They might withhold new ideas in meetings or make bare-bones effort in their work.

There’s a critical finding in Behrend’s research: These little acts of rebellion are not indiscriminately vindictive. “The way that people react or withdraw their performance is very strategic in ways that are not about harming their co-workers. It’s about harming the organization as a whole,” she said. (The overall feeling of opposition and distrust in an unequal power-dynamic relationship starts early: A University of Edinburgh study found that tracking, monitoring, and analyzing student work reduces trust between students, teachers, and administrators in higher education.)

A recent American Psychological Association study revealed—perhaps unsurprisingly—that upper management are overwhelmingly pro workplace surveillance. And given the speed at which technology is developed, without particular regard for consequences—consequences that are “severe and wide ranging”—it’s concerning that workers in the United States are not protected by any kinds of surveillance regulations.

“We have consumer privacy, we have protection from government surveillance,” Behrend said. “There are currently no protections for workers when it comes to workplace surveillance. We don’t need a lot of imagination to predict where this is going to go.” With so much of work spilling into home life—and the ability of workplaces to access your most intimate moments, from the bathroom to your fertility—Henry Ford’s system of total surveillance hardly seems out of reach.

After work, most of us go home, where behind our locked doors, our most intimate lives—with partners, spouses, one-night stands—are equally surveilled. We are surveilled by the state in partnership with commerce; we are surveilled by our phones, by smart appliances like our refrigerators or microwaves, or by the people with whom we share our lives. We are surveilled differently based on our politics, our races, our sex lives, our religions, and all other manner of identifier. But no matter our background, someone is always listening.

Being surveilled in our homes comes with a unique set of effects. When Finnish researchers outfitted homes with both computer and video surveillance, the study participants experienced annoyance, concern, anxiety, and anger. Some changed their behaviors and started doing private activities outside of their homes, and as researcher Dr. Antti Oulasvirta explained in Science Daily, “although almost all were capable of adapting their daily practices to maintain privacy intrusion at a level they could tolerate, the required changes made the home fragile.” Notably, the computer surveillance was just as disturbing as video surveillance: It was as much an invasion to have conversation surveilled as it was to have nudity filmed.

While relatively few of us live with a researcher’s video camera in the bedroom, our private lives are under surveillance in other ways—some unique to the digital age and some as old as human society itself. Without sharing a bed, you’d be hard pressed to find a more intimate relationship than the one you share with your neighbors, who might overhear a fight with your partner, or particularly vigorous sex, or might witness your backyard fall into disrepair as you struggle financially.

The Nextdoor app, intended as a locus of tips, community, a marketplace, and a never-ending scroll of lost cats and recommendations for dentists, has become dominated by videos of local unhoused people having mental health crises posted by agitated citizens who fancy themselves neighborhood watchdogs. Ring, the ubiquitous home surveillance system that can be pointed directly into a neighbor’s yard or capture delivery workers dancing on demand, partners with law enforcement; its owner, Amazon, revealed in 2022 that it uses its discretion to give footage obtained outside private homes to law enforcement without the homeowner’s consent—or a warrant. Surveilling neighbors is an almost perfect storm of private, public, commercial, and state: deputizing citizen spies to snitch on their own neighbors via a commercial product for a state end.

Our private lives are also being watched by our phone apps. Hand-wringing over the proliferation of online dating tends to focus on a civilization-in-decline turn from the “old-fashioned” means of courtship. But dating apps do present some compelling surveillance concerns, not the least of which is a private company owning complex data on your romantic desires. And more unnerving still is the overlap with state interests: Dating apps are increasingly forming partnerships with law enforcement, but it’s far from clear that their steps allegedly to prevent abuse and harassment actually make users safer. In fact, queer online daters also face higher rates of surveillance, and in some cases face more risks to their safety because of being watched.

Then there are the subtle ways in which the increasing digitization of our social and professional lives encourages us to surveil potential mates and assume they’re doing likewise. Daters are now replicating state surveillance, says lawyer and surveillance expert Heidi Boghosian. You might research, or put less kindly, stalk someone before meeting them. In theory it’s harmless—even sometimes necessary, given the risks of meeting strangers—but it comes with a “chilling effect,” Boghosian told me. “When we know we’re being monitored, we act differently.” It creates a distance between ourselves and our intimates. Sure, we might curate our Instagram feed with flattering photos or workshop our dating app profiles with friends, obscuring anything that might be unappealing, she said. But the bigger issue is a type of self-censorship that gets adopted in the face of so much private and public surveillance—not to mention an online world where any transgression can be broadcast widely and documented for years. “People may also be hesitant to share vulnerabilities, past mistakes, or unconventional interests or tastes,” Boghosian said. “The big picture is it can possibly lead to an erosion of trust and intimacy in relationships.”

Partners today have more opportunity to check up on each other when they’re not together than ever before. Some of this is consensual, like sharing locations, which allows phone users to track the real-time locations of other users who have extended the privilege. Some of it is so woven into the fabric of the modern social contract—watching each other’s stories on Instagram, for example—that we may not think of it as surveillance.

But when couples use social media—like Facebook or Instagram—surveillance is often the primary draw, as one 2021 study noted. Lovers can go to social media to allay jealousy or create a sense of security in the partnership: If they can keep tabs on their partner and the people in their partner’s lives, they might feel a sense of calm in the knowing. (That surveillance typically causes more jealousy, leading to more surveillance, is a particularly infuriating—if unsurprising—phenomenon.) There are positive associations with partner surveillance, the study found. Higher levels of commitment led to higher levels of online engagement—especially when both partners equally surveilled each other.

Another study, which surveyed undergraduates in romantic relationships, showed that respondents believed that “social networks incited jealousy and promoted control and surveillance practices, thus making romantic relationships more conflictive and artificial.” But what’s especially telling is that the respondents tended to blame individual users and not the machinations of social networks, which are designed to elicit negative reactions and a desire to keep scrolling to allay those reactions.

Interpersonal surveillance and what Boghosian calls the “veil of suspicion” have also given way to a new class of missteps and transgressions. Take the recent concept of “microcheating”—breaches of trust that stop short of a sexual affair. The phrase was coined by Australian psychologist Melanie Schilling in 2018 in a viral Daily Mail article—and has been back in the lexicon of late.

As Schilling told the Daily Mail, “You might be engaging in micro-cheating if you secretly connect with another person on social media, if you share private jokes, if you downplay the seriousness of your relationship to your partner or if you enter their name under a code in your phone.” Microcheating is not an emotional affair—it’s a set of behaviors that seems to be the direct result of impulses enabled by the way modern technology promotes surveillance.

This categorization can easily get out of control. Your boyfriend hit “like” on another woman’s thirst trap on IG? Is that different from lusting after someone walking down the street? Someone from a porn? A celebrity? The fantasy schoolteacher from his middle school sexual awakening? Microcheating is a transgression defined by something that isn’t made explicit and doesn’t even involve communicating. It’s solely understood through the data your apps track on you.

The apps actively prompt this kind of surveillance. Why do we need to know that our college lab partner commented on the same celebrity divorce announcement we stumble upon at three in the morning, even if we haven’t interacted since we mutually followed in 2011? Why does Twitter need to notify us when people we follow like certain posts? Why does Instagram need to tell us when people were last active?

We hit “like.” We hit “follow.” We consensually offer up that data. But the surveillance is the same, and so is the effect. On Twitter, we clarify “likes ≠ endorsements.” To avoid scrutiny, we must disavow our data, which nevertheless continues to be used in purity tests or as evidence of perceived betrayals on remarkably thin pretexts. Judging someone for a “like,” notably, doesn’t require two people to actually talk to each other. (“I thought you were a Jew,” read an Instagram D.M. my proudly Jewish partner received from a decade-ago co-worker alongside three screenshots of pro-cease-fire posts he’d double-tapped. He and this former co-worker hadn’t spoken in years.) In this sense, social media meta-feeds follow a predictable pattern: Much like how, in the workplace, hours spent surveilled at the desk become indicative of quality of work and a high-performing, fast worker might be deemed undedicated, tracking “likes” or “reposts” confuses a quantitative measure of intimacy, loyalty, or purity with the qualitative. It seems that the surveillance has begun to invent the transgressions, and the list grows, all because someone is watching.

These are the softer sides of behavioral change in response to surveillance. But surveillance can also be used for direct coercion. Social media and location sharing can be used by domestic abusers. And on the government side of things, getting citizens to cooperate with and even expand the power of the surveillance state is now an explicit policy. “What we’re seeing is a normalization of citizens spying,” Boghosian says. “Especially after the attacks of 9/11, we have a government and its corporate partners who are using fear to really keep the citizenry in check.” Take the Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” anti-terrorism campaigns that still blanket the country, or new laws like one in Texas that allows people to sue anyone who has aided in obtaining an abortion, or Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s 2022 call to the general public to report parents of transgender minors receiving gender-affirming care to state authorities.

Employers have taken the same approach. Following controversy over an editor criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza, Hearst Media in November announced a stringent new policy encouraging employees to report their colleagues’ personal social media behavior to management. The policy stipulates that posting about political or social issues from personal accounts—or even liking or reposting such content—can be cause for termination. It’s a somewhat perfect synthesis of the commercial and political interests deputizing citizens to report on each other, and Hearst’s union responded by filing an unfair labor practice complaint.

Defeatism about all of this surveillance seems to be spreading: While most Americans are worried about the rate of state and commercial surveillance, 73 percent and 79 percent believe they have little to no control over what commercial or government interests, respectively, do with their data, a 2023 Pew study found. Digital resignation is an emerging area of scholarship, Hochman said. It’s the understanding that all of us are being tracked in one form or another: our phone conversations, Google searches, how long we look at a picture on Instagram. “The architecture is so vast, the interests are so powerful, and the level of convenience is so palpable that Americans just sort of shrug their shoulders,” Hochman said. “Ah, well. What can you do? It’s like the cost of participation in our network society.”

When it comes to American minds, surveillance is an almost godlike conundrum: We consider these forces as bigger than their human creation. American ideals around privacy lag behind those in other Western countries: The European Convention on Human Rights enshrines privacy as a human right. Canada has the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and also the Privacy Act.

But there are reform efforts: The Government Surveillance Reform Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill with teeth, seeks to curtail state surveillance and reform Section 702, which allows for wide power of surveillance and is unpopular with both the governing right and left. As of this writing, the bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee developed its own bill broadening surveillance powers. While lawmakers work to reconcile the two reform bills in what is poised to be a major political battle, Section 702 has received a three-month extension from Speaker Mike Johnson.

There is pleasure in watching and gaining power through it—as those of us who scroll the feeds of an old co-worker we once drunkenly kissed at a holiday party, now married with a child, well know. It’s as pleasurable alone as it is with a group, racing to find information on a potential date or new neighbor or professional rival. We indulge this impulse to watch in reality TV and looking out the window to spy on the neighbors—activities that were around long before technology made spying on each other easier.

This human impulse on its own, with some guard rails in place, can be manageable—and even function as a form of social glue. “But the proliferation of really fun, convenient, attractive, addictive devices—devices that are by design made to be addictive and not to prioritize privacy,” Boghosian says, has left us transfixed.

In varying degrees, almost every member of American society permits—or patently opts into—some form of being surveilled in exchange for some kind of reward. You might complain to your sister about never being able to find bras that fit your small bust size, and then TikTok miraculously has the answer next time you open your phone: a special brand for smaller cup sizes available to purchase with one click. Without having been asked, your phone anticipated your needs, like a lover.

Jokes about our own personal FBI agent watching our every move abound, and certainly there is, as Foucault famously writes, “pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it.” In Beyoncé’s seminal Lemonade visual album, an iconic image displays grainy footage of the artist taunting the very security camera through which we see her, followed immediately by her smashing it with a baseball bat. So perhaps the pleasure is in fighting back.

These days, I can’t muster the energy to care that my phone may be listening to me pee. And going by the sound of TikTok playing in the stall next to me, most other people don’t care, either. It controls me, I control it; it offers me security, it exposes me. It also shows me that one of the few brands that makes clothing in extended sizes is having a sale the day I rip a seam, giving me a solution to a problem I didn’t seek out—an even-tempered, helpful partner in my pocket. I sit at my desk daydreaming instead of doing my work. I share my location, stalk new friends. I shrug my shoulders and call it a fair trade.