The NSA isn’t history’s first Big Brother: Peter Nowak

That would be religion

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(Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)

(Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)

If you’re seeing banners on websites proclaiming “the day we fight back,” it’s because there’s an online protest happening on Feb. 11 (today) over the spying programs being conducted by various government security agencies. Advocacy groups, organizations and companies such as the Electronic Frontier Federation, Mozilla and Reddit (plus Open Media here in Canada) are urging people to contact their respective lawmakers and demand changes that will curtail such programs and restore at least some degree of personal privacy.

It’s a noble goal to be sure, but it bears mentioning that this sort of mass surveillance – led most vigourously by the U.S. National Security Agency – isn’t entirely new. It has, in fact, existed for much of the modern age, albeit in a very different form. Indeed, the church and organized religion were the NSA well before there was even such a thing.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, much of the population in Western countries identified as religious. Regardless of faith, each congregation had its own set of rules to follow, as set out either by literature (e.g. the Bible) or by its respective clergy. Regardless of differences, the fundamentals were usually the same: if you didn’t follow the rules here on Earth, you wouldn’t get access to the afterlife – or you would, but it would be filled with eternal torment.

In modern secular nations, where fewer than half the population says religion is important, it’s difficult to imagine the effects this virtual surveillance would have had on the individual psyche. The impulse to follow the rules, when everyone else was doing so, would have been strong. Those who defied the social order risked being burned as heretics or witches.

It’s also difficult to imagine what might have happened had such a social order not existed. While humanity got up to some serious atrocities in the name of religion, it’s hard not to wonder if things might have been worse without it keeping some of our worst base instincts in check.

Plenty of scholarly research has been done on how religion affects both individual and societal behaviour, with many reports finding it has both positive and negative outcomes. As a 2009 study at the University of Miami found:

History testifies to religion’s ability to focus and coordinate human effort, to create awe and terror, to foster war and peace, to unify social groups, and to galvanize them against each other. In addition to religion’s social power, however, religion is a psychological force that can influence the outcomes of individual human lives. Indeed, the range of health-related, behavioral, and social outcomes with which religiousness is associated is both provocative and puzzling.

In that way, real (and not virtual) state surveillance is similar. One the one hand, the authorities assure us that they’re only after the bad guys and that people who aren’t doing anything wrong have nothing to fear. The spying is thus being done for our own good.

Security and privacy experts don’t see it that way, of course. Whether it’s all an-seeing god or the NSA, the very knowledge or belief of surveillance is enough to alter peoples’ behaviour, and not necessarily for the better.

“Left unchecked, surveillance can create a climate of self-censorship. If they know they’re being watched and all of their activities are being monitored, people tend to be more conservative,” said Ron Diebert, head of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and author of Black Code, when I spoke to him a few months ago. “That’s something we have to be conscientious of.”

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