Sense of Personal Violation

Sense of Personal Violation

That feeling of vulnerability – the sense that others can intrude upon or coerce your boundaries with impunity – impairs mental health, breeds conformity, and sows social distrust.

The protections of the Bill of Rights apply to all invasions on the part of government and its employees of the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life. It is not the breaking of his doors, and the rummaging of his drawers, that constitutes the essence of the offense; but it is the invasion of his indefeasible right of personal security, personal liberty, and private property, where that right has never been forfeited by his conviction of some public offense.

U.S. Supreme Court, Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886)


Privacy is about context and boundaries. We set some of our most important personal boundaries when we decide whether to share information about ourselves and how much information we are willing to share with certain people. Secret surveillance directly breaches those boundaries. Large-scale data collection evades and circumvents boundaries we create by combining and consolidating information we originally agreed to disclose only in isolated pieces and to specific sources.

Even when surveillance is conducted in the open, it can violate our personal boundaries. Over time, and as surveillance becomes more ubiquitous, the effects of losing control over our ability to manage our privacy may cause us to change our behavior, make different choices, and take fewer risks. That makes our lives less free and our society less dynamic.

For most people, the perception that the government is watching causes suspicion, anxiety, embarrassment, and sometimes, even fear. The degree of unease may be different for different people and different situations. But surveillance creates a power imbalance between the watcher and the watched. That feeling of vulnerability – the sense that others can intrude upon  our boundaries with impunity – breeds conformity and sows social distrust.

Examples of Use

  • Maryland
    Peace Activist Wrongfully Becomes Subject of Investigation

    Few would describe Bette Hoover, a conflict-resolution specialist, lifelong peace activist, and former Washington, D.C., director of the American Friends Service Committee as anything resembling a terrorist. For several years, however, the Maryland State Police repeatedly did – and they used that as pretext to monitor her political activism. (Her file, sent to her after the program shut down, contained multiple mistakes – the state’s political surveillance unit incorrectly reported that she was involved in animal rights issues and was a member of the Ruckus Society.) The MSP’s multi-year monitoring of anti-war and anti-death penalty groups produced files on 53 activists, all ‘suspected’ of terrorism but never connected to any violent crime. As a result, Hoover and other activists have faced unusually intrusive airport screening and may even have had their phones tapped. “I’ve never been paranoid before this,” she said. “Something shifted in me… I don’t appreciate my tax dollars being used to spy on me and my nonviolent friends. I don’t think it’s a healthy democracy that does that.”


When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.

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