Policing Privacy in the Age of Surveillance

06/11/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Co-authored by Hector Postigo*

The past few months have produced a national dialogue on police surveillance and citizen privacy, something unprecedented on such a scale. In the aftermath of several highly publicized and salient citizen-police conflicts, growing demand for police accountability has produced solutions ranging from federal investigations to oversight committees to surveying police action through required body cameras. The effectiveness, ethics, and usefulness of these solutions has been at the heart of many of the debates regarding what it means to watch and be watched in the 21st century.

In Social Science, the effects produced when a subject knows they are being watched are called "Hawthorne Effects." This concept suggests that people change their behavior when they know they are being surveyed, thus influencing and potentially reducing the authenticity of research findings. People start to take into consideration how their actions may be interpreted, judged, or punished. While the Hawthorne Effect is somewhat of a minefield for researchers and Institutional Review Boards, it may just be the saving grace of recent public calls for more police surveillance and transparency in the legal system.

The hope, by many of these highly publicized demands for police body cameras, is that simply knowing that the officer is being monitored would reduce the likelihood of abuse of power. However, as a public, we may also hope this goes both ways. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that it's not just the officer who knows they are being watched, but also the citizens who are also a part of that interaction. The hope is that this may also reduce the potential for violence against the police as everyone becomes part of the recording.

The problem resulting from all of this are the obvious concerns for privacy, something many civic groups and academic researchers have pointed out along the way. Increased surveillance leads to increased data on all individuals, even those who may be outside of an initial officer-citizen interaction. In short, these arguments ultimately conclude that increased police surveillance means a reduction in the privacy of citizens, even those existing within the law.

Privacy concerns get even more intense when considering how the data is secured, accessed, and interpreted. Debates over who would be able to watch collected footage and where it would be stored are ongoing, and will probably take years before a process can be institutionalized. In other work, we have argued that such surveillance would be best suited for citizen consumption and control, thus providing a balance to the potential power the data-controllers may have.

The concerns over control in this regard are particularly interesting, as they come at a time when privacy and personal data are at a paradoxical moment. While we may be squeamish at the idea of police having recording devises able to monitor select interactions, we have somehow grown accepting that our digital lives are completely recorded and surveyed. Never mind that companies such as Acxiom get to sell it for literal billions of dollars.

Herein lies the problem with the Hawthorne Effect: like all good 21st century technologies, it eventually wears off. At some point, we started to accept that our digital lives were being recorded and watched and no longer modified our behavior for such surveillance. Although this logically makes sense, researchers today debate if this is actually the case. Perhaps we are still aware of our recording, but have decided it's too much work to live off the grid; or how about we have simply accepted the nature of 21st century surveillance and instead play into its voyeurism- just ask your friend who posts ambiguous comments on Facebook looking for public reaction. Is this evidence of the public playing into the Hawthorne Effect, or is this just the reified presence of it? To some extent, it is probably both, in that we have accepted surveillance online but now use it to our advantage in digital interactions.

So instead of debating the artifact of police body cameras, it may be more valuable to answer the following: If we live in a world of accepting surveillance as a part of normal 21st century life, what does this then mean for police body cameras? Could we grow to accept this monitoring in police interactions in the same way we have grown to accept it online? Sorry, but there is no answer here, try posting it as a question on Twitter for some real answers.

*Hector Postigo is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production in Temple University's School of Media and Communications. His research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the European Commission. He has published and spoken at university and industry venues on topics ranging from intellectual property law, video game design, social media business models, social movements and privacy.