Webcams, cameras create suspicion, paranoia


Surveillance cameras and webcams are becoming increasingly prevalent, making it possible to frequently record a person’s actions.

Many times these cameras are visible, but other times they’re hidden or used in ways the recorded people are not aware of. Consciousness of cameras may affect behavior and mental health.

(Graphic by Alyssa Nielsen)

Marina Lowe, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said surveillance may help aid security but also may leave a lingering suspicion for people.

“We’re living in a world where our every activity is becoming increasingly more recorded, and I think that comes at a cost: this feeling that we’re constantly being watched,” Lowe said.

BYU cybersecurity professor Joseph Ekstrom said some people are “ignorant” about surveillance, whereas other people take their concern to the extreme.

Psychologist David LaPorte, author of the book “Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional,” said surveillance and computer hacking have contributed to people’s distrust and suspicion.

“My interest is in paranoia, and I hypothesized that this, along with a few other things, is actually increasing our sense of paranoia,” LaPorte said.

He compared surveillance and paranoia to images of thin women in the media and eating disorders.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the media showed more women who were very thin compared to the earlier media star Marilyn Monroe. Women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies increased, and eating disorders also increased.

LaPorte said he believes “the thin ideal” and women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies are related, not because women studied those images and deeply processed them but because of their subtle awareness of “the thin ideal” as prevalently portrayed.

Likewise, LaPorte suggests subtle awareness of surveillance technologies can have a mental effect.

“Sometimes the security cameras are very well hidden, and we don’t see them, but frequently we do see that they’re there. We see the little bubble thing in the ceiling,” LaPorte said. “We are at some level aware of these.”

Reminders of surveillance include “the little eye” by the ATM, the screen showing people to themselves as they walk into a store, the webcam cover stickers displayed in the grocery store checkout line and many other reminders.

Some people use webcam cover stickers to cover their computer webcam. Webcams on personal computers are not hard to hack, according to BYU cyber security professor Joseph Ekstrom. (Photo Illustration by Dani Jardine)

“There’s a sufficient number of instances during the course of our day and week that we do note the surveillance cameras,” LaPorte said.

LaPorte highlighted an interesting trend toward trusting others less. The Pew Research Center reports fewer people say they trust most of the people around them than they said 30 years ago.

LaPorte said surveillance is not the sole reason for this, but he said he thinks it is an interesting correlation.

“What you find over the period of time during which surveillance cameras and computer hackers and monitoring, during that time, the levels of trust in Americans has gone down dramatically,” LaPorte said.

Only 19 percent of the Millennial generation in 2012 said they trusted others compared to 31 percent of Generation X and 40 percent of Baby Boomers.

“These are the very people who have grown up in this world where they’re being surveilled and hacked,” LaPorte said.

Webcams on personal computers are not hard to hack, according to Ekstrom. And anybody, he said, could be at risk.

“Leaving your laptop sitting in the corner of your bedroom with the lid open and the power on is probably not a wise move if you’re concerned about what that camera sees,” Ekstrom said.

Not everyone who is concerned about surveillance and hacking is paranoid.

“The suspiciousness is on the roadside to paranoia. Paranoia is excessive suspiciousness,” LaPorte said.

But some might go from general suspicion to paranoia just as some might go from body dissatisfaction to eating disorders, LaPorte said.

“It’s making people more suspicious and less trusting, and for some individuals, it will reach levels where we’re going to call it paranoia,” Laporte said. “But I think it’s increasing everyone’s suspicions and distrust, which are all elements of paranoia.”

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