Online surveillance and how psychology is related to it   no comments

Posted at 11:52 am in Psychology

This week I will look at online surveillance and how psychology is related to it. Online surveillance has been a hot topic in the last couple of years.

During the Arab Spring, many Middle-Eastern governments have been accused of tracking down (potential) opponents and arresting them because of their online activity. Also, the revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA have led to more attention to how the Web can be used as a tool of espionage. The rise in these kinds of activity show similarities with 1984, by George Orwell. This book describes a society wherein the government continuously watches and monitors its population. With the rise of the World Wide Web, people have put more and more information about themselves online. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly interesting for different (authoritarian) governments to ‘watch and monitor’ this information. Herewith, they can potentially control their country in an Orwellian way by arresting people who might potentially be a threat for them.

Of course, citizens are also becoming aware of the omnipresent online surveillance by governments. If they hear about people that have been arrested because of things they have posted on the Web, they might alter their (online) behaviour. From a psychological perspective, it is interesting to see how the mind and behaviour of people is changing because of this. Their response can be compared with psychological experiments, wherein the term social interference can be used to refer to such a response. This effect is a decline in performance when observers are present (Gray, 2007: p. 502). With an increasing notion of online surveillance, which might have consequences (i.e. physical punishment, imprisonment or worse) for a certain way of behaving, a citizen might become less (visibly) active online. This could be seen as a decline in performance.

This response can also be seen as the outcome of anxiety, which according to psychological terms can be seen as the mental situation when people worry excessively about a “stimulus or event that are vague, not identifiable, or in the future” (Gray, 2007: p. 590). When one does not know what future dangers may lie ahead, but expects consequences for certain actions, behaviour can change.

Social interference and anxiety are just two topics that can be used to look at online surveillance from a psychological perspective. Still, it offers many other perspectives to look at the subject. The approaches that I described earlier in a blogpost (biological, behaviourist, cognitive, psychodynamic, and humanistic) can for example all be used to look at online surveillance in a different way.

Next time, I will look at how online surveillance can be studied from the perspective of computer science. Also, I will look at how psychology and computer science can be combined to study online surveillance.


Gray, Peter. Psychology. Fifth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers, 2007.

Written by Gert Van Hardeveld on November 26th, 2013

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