Law in the Internet Society

Psychological Aspects of Allowing our Cybersurveillance and Data-Collection

-- By DonnaZamir - 06 Dec 2019

The Cybersurveillance Cognitive Dissonance

We are all being cyber-surveilled - this is a well-known fact to many people, especially to the students in this course.

An overwhelmingly large amount of data about us is constantly extracted from our laptops, cellphones and other digital devices, and is used by, and traded between, numerous entities, even without our knowledge.

Although we are all aware, to some extent, of this phenomenon - we nonetheless continue to addictively and habitually use our devices, and permit this constant surveillance and information collection to occur.

This situation positions us in cognitive dissonance, which is common in many other contexts of addictions, such as addiction to abusive substances - people know it can be destructive to their lives, but they nonetheless continue to consume these products.

One fundamental question is: why do we do this? Don't we know better?

Throughout the course, it was suggested that some psychological aspects underly this "cybersurveillance cognitive dissonance", such as the need to reduce anxiety; FOMO; and repression and denial of the ramifications of our data-surveillance.

Drawing on these discussions, other psychological aspects will be offered to further elucidate this cognitive dissonance, and to attempt to explain the reasons for this "irrational" behavior.

Optimism Bias

One example of what is largely defined as "positive illusions", is the "optimism bias" (or unrealistic optimism), i.e. a judgment bias which tends to affect people's subjective estimates of the likelihood of future events in their lives, causes them to overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and to underestimate the likelihood of negative events, especially in comparison to other people.

Studies have found that approximately 80% of the population display optimism bias in some instances, documented across various characteristics, including gender, age, nationality, and profession.

For example, empirical research shows that people believe they are less prone than others to health risks caused by their cellphones; smokers believe they have a lower risk of developing lung cancer than the average smoker; and students expect to receive higher starting salaries and more job offers than they eventually receive.

This bias can help explain why people, who are aware that they are constantly being surveilled and their behavior being collected and traded, don't do anything about it - they deny and do not believe that any harm could come to them; perhaps to other people, but not to them. Thus, when we, here in the U.S., read news reports (if we indeed read them at all) about viruses targeting Hong Kong protestors' iPhones; or about people whose WhatsApp accounts have been hacked in India – we might just tell ourselves that it is not going to happen to us, just because we are "us" (and not "them").

Present Bias

The "present bias", simply put, is the tendency of people to focus on the "here and now" – namely, to over-estimate the value of immediate rewards, at the expense of long-term, equivalent or greater benefits.

Interestingly, this bias was raised in the context of environmental law and the notion of intergenerational justice. Thus, despite the fact that people expressly claim they care about the environment and want to leave the world in good condition for future generations – they nonetheless discount environmental risks, and their future manifestation, to a greater degree than can be rationally defended.

Similarly, even though people are aware of the future risks that cybersurveillance entails, they choose to discount these risks, while reaping the immediate benefits of using their laptops and cellphones in the present.


Another relevant psychological effect is "groupthink", a phenomenon which occurs when a group of people, of various sizes, make irrational or non-optimal decisions; among other reasons, due to a desire to create harmony and conformity within the group. In this situation, group members tend neither to express doubts and judgments, nor to disagree with the group consensus, while possibly ignoring prospective ethical or moral consequences.

Implementing this phenomenon in the cybersurveillance perspective, it can be suggested that, when confronted with explicit information regarding our cybersurveillance - we dismiss or diminish our doubts and reservations on the matter, in order to conform and harmonize with the rest of our cyber-surveilled peers. We do so, even if cybersurveillance contradicts our most fundamental values, such as the right to autonomy and privacy.

Can We Reduce the Biases?

There is no doubt that the above-described psychological biases can be quite useful in our everyday lives; because, what can be better and more convenient than ignoring the world's numerous threats; satisfying our current momentary desires; and conforming with everyone around us? However, we all would agree that ignoring existing risks and potentially adverse future results, can only last so long.

Studies have offered several ways for reducing these biases. These mainly focus on raising awareness to, and emphasizing, the underlying risks and adverse outcomes of these biases; for instance, by providing information about these risks in a salient and clear manner; highlighting their frequency and seriousness; and emphasizing that they are not confined to a specific group of individuals, but apply to everyone.

However, due to the fact that our formal education, as well as the information we consume, are mostly produced and controlled by the same entities (both governmental and commercial) which cyber-surveil and collect our data - it seems much harder to raise awareness of these problems, and accordingly, to reduce our biases.

Yet, we can still hope that public awareness regarding the perils of our cybersurveillance will be further raised through alternative, interest-free, communication channels, before it is too late to do something about it (although admittedly, this aspiration might be optimistically biased).

Personally, having participated in this course, and especially writing this essay, I became much more aware of both existing and future hazards of cybersurveillance, and to the underlying biases which allow, and even encourage, me to ignore these hazards. Thus, I have sincerely been struggling with these biases and been trying to change my (as well as my family's and friends') cyber-usage. For instance, I switched to a more secure browser; I turned off any (apparent) option on my smartphone to collect information about my location, media content, etc.; and, generally, I now think twice before clicking on any online content I encounter (while formerly, I habitually clicked on almost every link I found interesting, with no hesitation).

While I am well-aware that this is just a drop in the bucket (yet, bad habits are hard to break), I hope to continue to confront my biases, and to use more secured cyber devices in a more conscious manner.

It's a reasonable psychological catalog of relevant phenomena, followed by the observation that teaching is what alters biases, which are phenomena of a mind idling in neutral, not one that is growing. Teaching that isn't accompanied by surveillance, then, is the indicated direction of travel. The course in which the essay is being written is an illustration. The wiki in which you are writing (as opposed to the surveillance curriculum vehicle, Canvas) is an illustration. Perhaps the next draft could deal with the growing mind more self-consciously.


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r8 - 28 Jan 2020 - 05:08:28 - DonnaZamir
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