There’s no way of knowing—at least not yet—everything the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 saw during its slow drift across the U.S. It flew over populated and unpopulated areas, cities and military sites. While it may not have caught a glimpse of you during its journeys, you have no idea what it did capture. If that makes you a little uneasy—even a little paranoid—well, you’ve got plenty of reason.
Privacy, at least as we once knew it, is becoming a thing of the past. The U.S. currently has more than 50 million security cameras operating in stores, workplaces, and outdoor public spaces, factoring out to some 15 cameras for every 100 people, according to Precise Security, a privacy advocacy group. That puts the U.S. first in the world, leading even China, which has about 14 cameras for every 100 people, according to the same source. Facial recognition software is becoming ubiquitous in the U.S., with systems installed in stores, airports, and casinos to detect known shoplifters, travel security risks, and suspected gambling cheats. In Dec. 2022, there was a public controversy when the company that owns Madison Square Garden in New York used facial recognition systems to ban members of law firms that were representing clients suing the company
And all of that is only what happens when you leave your house. Simply turn on your computer, and marketers are routinely tracking what you’re surfing, searching, and buying, following you from site to site and serving up ads that are designed to appeal to your interests.
“We’re suddenly seeing this ubiquitous surveillance,” says Tara Behrend, professor of psychology at Purdue University and president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. “Technology has advanced very quickly—faster than our ability to think critically about what we should be measuring about people, under what circumstances, and what rights people have.”
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None of this has sat well with Americans. In a 2022 Axios poll, for example, more than half of tech workers said they would quit their jobs if their employer began using surveillance technology to monitor employee productivity. A 2022 Ipsos poll found that a whopping 84% of Americans are concerned about the security of data they provide on the internet and 74% change their passwords at least once per year.
And now comes the supposed Chinese eye in the sky—followed by the appearance and shooting down of three other unidentified objects over North America on Feb. 10, 11, and 12. Americans’ sense of paranoia about surveillance—whether by private companies, their own government, or foreign powers—was further stoked by conservative media and public figures. Fox News host Jesse Watters speculated that this or other Chinese balloons could be designed to carry bioweapons. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that China might be using balloon delivery systems to deploy electromagnetic pulse weapons that would knock out the U.S. power grid.
That reaction is in keeping with a decades-long U.S. history of paranoia over government and commercial surveillance of private citizens, says David Harper, professor of clinical psychology at the University of East London. “In the 1970s and 1980s it was about intelligence agencies and government databases,” he says. “In the 1980s and 1990s it was about closed circuit TV in public places; and by the 2000s it became about Facebook and Google and those algorithms that nobody understands.” The 2020s, meantime, have brought the era of deep fakes and the danger that comes from putting invented words in the mouths of invented images of very real people.
All of those sources of suspicion and paranoia were effectively invisible. The spy balloon isn’t—and while the public response has been more measured than that of some of the news media, people are still troubled.
“The spy balloon definitely felt to me like a violation, in that it was surveillance without consent, and an aggressive penetration of our nation’s skies,” says Neelam Patel, 47, a poet and dancer in Vorhees, N.J. “However, in the scheme of my daily life, I filed it away as [something] similar to my phone tracking where I’m going, or online businesses or credit card companies knowing precisely what I’m spending and where. Still, the more data about myself that is shared, the more at risk I am of being manipulated or controlled.”
Other Americans seem to be taking a pragmatic approach that echoes Patel’s. “We’ve been in such a dystopian fear state for such a prolonged period, I am personally unable to add an additional fear to my mental load,” says Sharon Feingold, an Atlanta-based voiceover artist. “Whether those balloons are aliens or signify an impending war with China, I’ve given up. I’m both highly sensitized and desensitized at once.”
“I try to stay focused on what’s in front of me, the things I can control,” says Dan Curry, 65, a retired addiction counselor in Petaluma, Calif. “Spy balloons, if that’s what they are, seem to be in the ‘things-I-can’t-control’ bucket.”
For a lot of people, however, things that can’t be personally controlled are precisely what cause the greatest anxiety. “To be paranoid, you have to have a good imagination,” says Behrend. “You have to be able to imagine scenarios other than what’s right in front of your face. From person to person, there are going to be individual differences in terms of whether they allow their imaginations to run wild or whether they use their critical-thinking skills. But it’s unfair to ask people to use critical-thinking skills to evaluate the balloon, because they don’t have any information about it.”
Harper agrees, seeing the fact that there’s really no clear information about exactly what the spy balloon was up to or what its capacities are as rocket fuel for paranoid thinking. “Ambiguity drives paranoia at both an individual and cultural level,” he says. “It all feeds on not having enough information.”
What’s more, the information we do have at the moment—specifically the growing tensions between the U.S. and China—only makes things worse. Paranoia, Harper explains, is driven partly by what’s known as coalitional threats. “It’s the idea that a group can covertly organize against you with malign intent,” he says. When that group is, like China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, the coalition is a formidable one.
The solution, both Behrend and Harper say, is transparency: the more Americans learn about the full scope of the Chinese surveillance program—and the more forensic analysts discern about the balloon itself from examining the wreckage—the lower the level of public anxiety may become.
Write to Jeffrey Kluger at firstname.lastname@example.org.