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The Consequences of Observation: How Surveillance Inflames CPTSD And Is Turning Us Into Tormented, Haunted Children

April 12, 2019
Jordana Landres


The Consequences of Observation: How Surveillance Inflames CPTSD And Is Turning Us Into Tormented, Haunted Children

Autonomy while under constant surveillance is a mockery of free agency.

When I was a little girl in the early 1980s, my favorite Atari video game was Space Invaders. Sitting cross-legged in front of my friend’s TV, I feverishly shot down rows of aliens that advanced down the screen before they crossed a vital protective barrier and crushed me with a metallic death growl. I never wanted to stop. It wasn’t just a game I was playing. It was one I was living growing up with a malignant narcissist parent.

As an adult living with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) from the abuse I experienced as a child, I realize now my instinct to practice setting boundaries against relentless intrusion had already been activated way back then. The difference, of course, is back then escape was far more possible. I could be, temporarily, a fugitive from my mother’s scrutiny, her disgusted rage I wasn’t the child she really wanted. I was able to escape her penetratingly critical eye, her demand I allow her physical and emotional access to me in all ways at all times. Even if I was never off her radar, I was off her grid. She couldn’t reach me by phone while I was walking down the street. Or in the park unless I was at a payphone. She couldn’t text me. She would have had to search for me herself or enlisted the police to find me.

Out of bounds. Out of range. Out of sight. It’s a paradise almost entirely lost from once upon a very different if not very distant time.

Not surprisingly, I, along with many people — both abuse survivors and not — find living in the Surveillance Era intensely stressful. It too closely, almost unbearably, parallels growing up in non-homes where parents tracked our every move to maintain tourniquet-tight control. We were considered only as loveable as we were useful, pleasing to the eye, and sometimes profitable. We are well-acquainted with our most intimate information being used to manipulate, control, direct and shame us. In our houses, the act of being incorrectly human was a crime. 

Getting acclimated and accustomed to constant surveillance is an emotional minefield when living with CPTSD. In many ways it perpetuates the same gaslighting and dictatorship by exposure we survived. In some ways, now we can never leave home. And with data breach outbreaks becoming a regular occurrence, more and more of us are abuse survivors. Spiritual too. For CPTSD survivors and those turning into them from environmental stressors, the inescapable mass reality of constantly being watched micromanaged and manipulated, unchecked surveillance is the lead in our equilibrium’s drinking water.

Case in point: When I get up from exercising on my living room floor and sit down in front of my laptop only to see an ad asking me if I’m doing planks correctly blazing across my screen, it triggers me. It’s the psychological equivalent of a stranger’s hand where it doesn’t belong. The flashback flashes forward.

It’s hard not to fear the fall of privacy is the rise of tyranny. It’s digital quartering. Some 200 plus years ago, colonists were forced to host British soldiers. Now we’re all occupied. Classified. Commodified. Your brain. Big Brother, Big Pharma and Big Data looking you over head to soul.

Unchecked surveillance closely parallels the malignant covert narcissistic parent reptile dominant construct, the self-proclaimed right to all your information at all times. Almost everything you’ve ever done now being available forever reminds me of the mother, father, grandparent, domestic partner who will never let you forget every way you’ve failed or, just as abusively, every way you’ve ever succeeded that didn’t please them.

People behave differently when they know they’re being watched, to say nothing of how they feel. Renowned security expert and author Bruce Schneier says “The fact that you don’t do things, that you will self-censor, are the worst effects of pervasive surveillance.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening, Post Edward Snowden’s NSA exposure, the frequency of certain Google search terms ranging from terrorism topics to embarrassing medical questions has steadily dropped due to people perhaps fearing they’ll be held accountable for exactly the darkness they’re looking to protect themselves from. It’s a restraint rooted in fear of catastrophic retaliation. Much like in an abusive home where standing up for yourself is an act, considered by the abuser, to be an outrage.

It’s an absurd paradox: When everything is tracked, the steps you take to protect yourself from intrusion simultaneously arm the intruder. It’s a rancid stalemate, a circumstantial gridlock the average citizen doesn’t usually come out on the winning end of.

Constant monitoring — demanding a partner account for all his or her time spent away from a spouse is considered a controlling — harmful sign of a potential abuser.

Recently, while shopping online at an extremely popular retail site for a mattress, the price on the checkout page was higher than the price listed in the item’s description. A mattress cover I didn’t want had been automatically added to the basket.

Just another day in the consumer nanny altered state.

 Being under constant watch is undeniably a subjugation framework. Marc Rotenberg, the President and Executive Director of Epic, an independent public interest research center in Washington D.C., says, ”When you have no privacy, you’re in prison.”  

Surprisingly no studies are finding the awareness of constantly being watched can cause some CPTSD symptoms including depression and anxiety. How could it not? Anyone under constant surveillance is a moving target, a free-range de facto microchipped free-range inmate even if some of the effects of having the data can be used benevolently to prevent crime.

As a fortysomething Gen Xer who grew up experiencing and enjoying the wild unbridled freedom of off the grid living, I regularly grapple with the anger and sense of violation I feel at losing it, how we’ve virtually all lost it. And even the best CPTSD trauma treatment has an uphill battle trying to keep a consistently retorn psychological wound healing ahead of the cut.

I’m struck by my friend Bhezat’s perspective, who is in his late 20s. “The concept of privacy is being bred out of the newer generation because they’ve never grown up in a world that wasn’t connected,” he says. “It’s like animal husbandry except it’s human farm instead of animal farm.”  

Human rights abuses long predates current surveillance technology development. But when our governing system of checks and balances is hugely skewed in favor of corporations, it becomes one of checks and mates, with citizens often on the losing end of the chess board.

Can encryption along with rigorously applied digital ethics with strict laws against how information can be kept and used bring balance and prevent the relentless collection of our information from destroying our sense of true safety, independence, our lives?

They’re working on it.

In the meantime, my arduous struggle to navigate surveillance technology as a daily CPTSD trigger continues. 

Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about human beings driven by the desire for large-scale profit and control now having a deity-like access to everything about us.

What could go possibly go wrong?