Could a society function without privacy? Why does mass surveillance help the powerful more?

So we’re rapidly approaching a point where a combination of technological innovations could allow everyone to be watched, all of the time.

Specifically, with cameras from personal assistant devices (Alexa or Google assistant will be able to see within a few years, once the machine vision chips come down in price) and private and government surveillance cameras finally being able realtime interpret what they see, it would be feasible for everyone in a developed country to be surveilled almost all of the time.

Obviously with a dense enough network of cameras, and automated classifiers recording what each person does, you don’t need 100% coverage to know almost 100% of what a person does.

Did someone go into a bathroom and microphones picked up farting or masturbatory sounds? Did someone disappear from surveillance, and a person of similar height with a similar gait wearing a mask or with distorted facial features reappear somewhere nearby? Did a murder occurs in a house, and all of the nearby neighbors can be accounted for at that time, except for less than 5 individuals?

There are methods, some research, some good enough to use, where many of these inferences can be automated. It would be like a detective is writing in a text file everything a person does and writing down the most likely probabilities whenever a person does something there is not direct evidence for or the machine is uncertain what is happening.

So can this work or would public knowledge of everyone’s sexual activities and bathroom habits cause societal collapse?

And when powerful individuals commit wrongful acts, whether it be an executive stealing company money or a government official colluding with a foreign government, it would be a lot easier to prove conclusively - and rapidly - their misdeeds.

And there would be an immensely positive effect in this kind of system. If automated systems can detect most crimes as they happen, and determine the likely culprit within a few minutes if a crime is reported, punishment would be rapid and near certain. This in turn should mean a lot less crime would even happen. Someone contemplating committing a robbery or rape or murder will know that within hours they’d be caught, that there is no chance of getting away with it, and all their criminal peers are already in jail. (this doesn’t stop irrational individuals with mental illness from committing crime but some of those could be caught early at least)

We wouldn’t need vast personal arsenals to feel safe, or to live in small fortresses at the outskirts of town, or fear that our wife can’t sunbathe nude in a public park without getting assaulted.

Housing projects for the poorer individuals could actually be safe places to live. Public transport could be safer than your own living room.

In order for mass surveillance to be beneficial, it has to have universal coverage and universal access. It doesn’t really do us much good to track down that purse snatcher, but be blind to back room deals which create the dysfunctional environments which foster purse snatching in the first place. Until anyone and everyone can see the whole picture for themselves, whoever already has the advantage can write the narrative.

For an interesting scenario in which universal surveillance might work, see Rudy Rucker’s Singularity.

That said, knowing or believing one is being observed definitely affects us, though in different ways. Some people will feel more self conscious. Some will in observing how ubiquitous and potentially joyful certain previously questionable behaviors really are, will feel more normalized. If observation goes both ways, the power differentials tend to lessen.

Privacy can enhance focus, but being able to shield one’s own awareness is more important here than shielding oneself from others.

In terms of crime though, what would be more important is not, our sudden ability to catch people doing things. But rather, in our increased perspective and context. In really being forced to see how we all contribute to environments which foster dysfunctional behavior. In the gained empathy from getting to see ourselves from outside perspectives. And particularly, from seeing which causes are truly harmful, and which are scapegoats…?

Read 1984. Big Brother is watching you all the time.

With today’s atmosphere of inability to accept that people change and can show repentance for previous bad behavior, constant surveillance would lead either to constant fear that you will be condemned for innocuous actions, or a total loss of shame that allows people to behave in ways that were once considered socially unacceptable.

Roe v. Wade told us we have a right to privacy. Privacy for some medical procedures, but not for anything else, I guess.

David Brin wrote a book about this 20 years ago:

The answer is that mass surveillance helps the powerful if the powerful are allowed to watch us, but we’re not allowed to watch them.

Indeed. Regardless of the reasons given to put such a system in place, it will end up being used to preserve the power of those in control. It will be used to stop opponents and oppress outgroups. China is ramping up the surveillance of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and Tibet. Stuff such as requiring tracking devices on cars, and collecting fingerprint and DNA data on everybody between the ages of 12 and 75. This is not being done to protect any interests except those of the Chinese government.

In a democracy such as the US, always assume that the whatever powers you’re willing to believe will be used benevolently by the people in power you like, will also be available when the people you don’t like inevitably are in power someday.

Additionally, a strong argument can be made the additional surveillance does not actually provide additional protection. For example, Las Vegas is one of the most heavily monitored places in the US, yet the Vegas shooting still happened.