Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


True Crime

surveillance-society

(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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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