Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

True Crime


(Photo: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

The Secret Cost of a Surveillance Society

• April 18, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

Fear of the criminal justice system can lead to negative health, financial, and educational outcomes.

There’s a popular action movie trope in which the heroic protagonist, temporarily believed to be the bad guy, must covertly treat an injury instead of going to a hospital and risking being tracked or discovered. The circumstances driving these suboptimal health care choices are always extraordinary. Think of Rambo stitching himself up in the woods or Sarah Connor dealing with a wound from the T-1000’s blade. Things need to have really flown off the rails for a hospital to be off limits.

But a new study suggests that concerns about being tracked by the criminal justice system can lead people to avoid medical institutions even in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. And it’s not just a person’s health that can be put at risk. Fears about surveillance may also have a negative effect on financial and educational outcomes.

The study, conducted by Sarah Brayne, a Ph.D. student at Princeton, examines whether contact with the criminal justice system—anything ranging from incarceration to being stopped on the street by a police officer—leads people to opt out of certain institutions, a concept she calls “system avoidance.” Specifically, her question was whether police contact would increase system avoidance with regard to “surveilling institutions”—places like hospitals or banks that collect important personal information and give the sense you’re being “put into the system.”

A perfect storm of data collection and aggressive criminal justice policies can help to create a society that’s toxic for social mobility.

Brayne analyzed two data sets: The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed adolescents in 1994 and 1995, and then twice more between the ages of 18-26 and 24-34; and the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, from which she examined four waves of data. Contact with the criminal justice system was divided into five categories: 1) no contact, 2) stopped and questioned, 3) arrested, 4) convicted, and 5) incarcerated. The surveilling institutions she examined included medical facilities, financial institutions, schools, and places of employment. As a comparison, Brayne examined contact with “non-surveilling” religious or civic institutions like churches and volunteer associations.

The results are revealing, disturbing, astounding—pick your adjective. Even after controlling for demographics, income, health, and behaviors like drug use or carrying a weapon, respondents who had any type of contact with the criminal justice system were 31 percent more likely than those who had no contact to not obtain medical care when they needed it. Even people who were merely stopped by police were 33 percent more likely to not seek medical care. On the other hand, contact with the criminal justice system was unrelated to engagement with non-surveilling institutions.

A similar patter emerged with regard to financial and educational institutions. Having contact with the criminal justice system was associated with a 19 percent increase in the odds of not having a bank account, and a 31 percent increase in the odds of not being enrolled in school.

The multiple time points in the surveys also allowed Brayne to slice the data a second way and look at how individuals modified their behavior over time as their contact with the criminal justice system changed. She found that transitioning from no contact to contact with the system was associated with 48 percent higher odds of not obtaining needed medical care, and 90 percent higher odds of going from having a bank account to not having a bank account. In contrast, changes in contact with the criminal justice system had no statistically significant effect on involvement with non-surveilling institutions.

The findings tell a convincing story about how fear of the criminal justice system can lead to negative health, financial, and educational outcomes. And because contact with the system is more frequent in low-income and minority communities, these negative outcomes ought to hit them disproportionately hard. A perfect storm of data collection and aggressive criminal justice policies can help to create a society that’s toxic for social mobility.

One specific implication is that new laws establishing stricter requirements for voters could have a stronger impact on voter suppression. It’s possible that such requirements draw attention to the “being in the system” aspect of voting and make it seem more akin to engaging with a surveilling institution. That these laws would actually induce surveillance concerns that cause people to stay home may seem like a stretch, but there is already research suggesting that concerns about ballot secrecy—a distinct but not completely unrelated concern to surveillance—can depress voter turnout.

Despite the study’s extensive controls, it is possible that the findings have an alternative explanation that’s more pedestrian than fears of surveillance. The fact that getting arrested makes people less likely to have a bank account seems self-evident, for example. And although there are very few barriers to going to a hospital or opening a bank account, it’s plausible that what appears to be willful avoidance of surveilling institutions is actually driven by discrimination. But at the very least, there is probably causality in both directions—people choose to avoid surveilling institutions and are pushed away from them—and even with these potential alternative explanations the study still provides compelling evidence that surveillance concerns lead to negative health, financial, and educational outcomes for a disproportionately low-income population.

More broadly, the study is a reminder that policies are set by people who, for the most part, don’t have threatening contact with the criminal justice system or a reason to be suspicious of it.

In policy debates there’s a notion that support for a more intrusive intelligence apparatus comes from people who shortsightedly believe they have nothing to hide. But a more accurate characterization may be that support comes from people who know that nobody is coming to look for what they’re hiding. Brayne’s study shows that, among the many Americans who don’t have such a luxury, efforts to compensate for its absence may lead to a variety of negative outcomes.

Eric Horowitz
Eric Horowitz is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @EricHorow.

More From Eric Horowitz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.