It’s a slow day at work and you decide to whip out your phone to check in with your friend. One thing leads to another and you find yourself diving down a rabbit hole of less than legal topics and half-serious conspiracy theories. Eventually one of you jokes and says, “the NSA just flagged you man.” You chuckle, but at the same time part of you can’t help but wonder. Is it listening?
If you can relate to this experience or anything like it, you're not alone. The internet is filled with a seemingly never-ending supply of memes all playing off a collective anxiety over state surveillance.
“These jokes are reflective of an underlying general anxiety about [surveillance],” Parker Higgins, director of special projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a phone call with Motherboard.
Higgins has been a digital privacy advocate for years and said that despite claims from tech firms and industry giants that privacy is dead, the average person still demands it.
“People have a really good intuitive understanding of privacy,” Higgins said. “These [surveillance memes] reminds you that people really do care about it.”
And while some criticize younger generations for poor privacy habits and an ambivalence towards surveillance, the data suggests the opposite.
According to a Pew Research Study, as much as 86 percent of internet users have taken some measures to mask their online activity. The same Pew survey showed that younger people between the ages of 18 and 29 are more likely than adults to pay attention to privacy issues. They are also more likely to have given up personal information.
Edward Snowden's 2013 leaks detailed the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, and years later, an everpresent knowledge of the surveillance state persists.
CryptoHarlem founder Matthew Mitchell knows the reality of government surveillance better than most. Every month he holds security meetups to educate Harlem, New York residents on privacy practices and how to avoid local surveillance. Members of his community experience local surveillance daily.
In a phone call with Motherboard, Mitchell said that he believes these memes are counter productive.
“You make the joke because you don’t want to believe it’s real,” Mitchell said.
At its core, Mitchell views these memes as a byproduct of fear and a sense by individuals that they are powerless to act against government surveillance.
“Fear makes people want to give up,” he said.
Instead of posting memes, Mitchell wants people aware of overreaching surveillance to take active and positive steps to teach others how to protect themselves.
The recent headlines about Facebook's data crisis and Cambridge Analytica are reigniting internet users’ privacy demands. The punchlines to the to next surveillance memes may no longer target the NSA or FBI, but rather Google and Facebook.
And this shifting focus towards businesses may be a good thing, according to Mitchell, who said that mass collection of personal data by the likes of Facebook and Google present more realistic surveillance dangers to the average person. He also thinks people are more likely to take action against corporations.
“People are less defeatist about corporations than they are with governments,” Mitchell said.
Higgins said either way, people are demanding better privacy options.
“There is a sense that these concepts are at odds—whether they be governments or big companies—and that you have to pick a model, but people value their sense of control and autonomy over their data and people ultimately understand there are a lot of threats to that.” he said. “You can squabble over the specifics but the memes reflect a general underlying anxiety.”