True Crime in the Surveillance State

Has our obsession with crime drama lowered our right to privacy expectations and raised our tolerance for authoritarian forms of rule?

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Have you ever noticed how many true crime and crime drama shows are produced by the BBC? My partner and I have a running joke about the Murderous British Isles, where homicide is so common that even the village vicars are tasked with solving a new one every week. Despite the gross overrepresentation of lethal assault in Jolly Old England, the UK ranks 175th on the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime list of 230 nations that report homicide statistics, which makes it among the safest places on earth, alongside Andorra, Switzerland, and Tahiti. In fact, the murder rate across Great Britain has been in sharp decline for more than a decade with one of the Crown’s Dependencies, the Channel Islands, reporting zero homicide deaths. This in contrast to the heinous intrigue chronicled in Bergerac, the long-running crime drama set in Jersey so enduringly popular that it has been greenlit for a reboot in 2021.

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Wikipedia’s entry for British crime drama lists well over 300 different shows in thirteen separate categories, not including prison shows (or any of the series that feature clergy). A similar entry for American crime drama includes over 425 shows (not including prison dramas). Neither list is comprehensive — no love for cult classic Reno 911!, torture porn smash hit 24, or any of the news channel shows about crime, like Crime Stories with Nancy Grace — nonetheless, these lists point to the popularity of the genre. Outside of television, true crime podcasts have almost single-handedly moved the medium from its tech-savvy user base to the popular culture mainstream with the introduction of Serial in 2014.

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Lurid stories of grisly violence and fascination with its perpetrators can be documented as early as the 17th century, and traced back yet further through ballad, myth, and even in the hagiography of Christian martyrs. Unsolved mysteries in the 19th century ignited prurient interest in victim and villain alike, as the public clamored for stories about Mary Rogers, Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, and an endless parade of outlaws, renegades, and assassins. The 20th century press would deliver increasingly salacious coverage of shocking misdeeds and the deviants behind them, such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Wineville chicken coop murders, thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, tabloid sweethearts Bonnie & Clyde, mafia hits, spree shootings, and serial killers. Over time, stories of crime and punishment would receive more formal treatment by literary giants, such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, and by investigative journalists who chronicled the miscarriage of justice, like the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the lynching of Leo Frank, and the exoneration of countless hate crimes. Indeed, these stories are part of our culture and shared heritage, preserved in movies, monuments, remembrances, songs, and even in local tourism. Though popular for well over a century, interest in the genre has drastically intensified over the last five years, with podcasts, streaming video, books, and whole cable channels dedicated to satisfying the public’s demand for new content. Since 1990, the number of new crime series on TV alone has grown exponentially, nearly doubling every decade. But what effect is this appetite having on public opinion, and is it dulling our perception of civil rights and lowering our expectation of privacy? In particular, is it raising our tolerance for surveillance and authoritarian rule of law?

Over a half a century of polling, Gallup has measured the persistent belief that violent crime is on the rise, even as rates continue to fall year after year. Meanwhile, scholars have been documenting the association between viewership of police procedurals and positive impressions of law enforcement for over 25 years. In 2014, the Annenberg Public Policy Center published a cultivation theory study that links television violence to oppressive rule:

…the most important problem resulting from frequent exposure to TV violence is not the direct imitation of violence by viewers, but the gradual increase in fear and mistrust that promotes authoritarian governance.

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These findings map directly to the rise in public surveillance by the private sector and security agencies in the form of cameras, biometric scanners, data mining, satellites, autonomous vehicles, and reconnaissance drones. Harvard University’s Shoshana Zuboff describes the sociotechnical conditions that supported the development of surveillance capitalism and how the private sector has laid an ownership claim to our personal data, but this explanation does not account for increasingly lax attitudes about surveillance-related privacy. While indifference or even support for oppressive forms of rule cannot be reduced to any single factor, like true crime consumption, a great deal of evidence suggests that across the globe, societies that perceive high levels of crime tend to have less trust in government and become more willing to submit to militant policing as a result. These indicators are strongly reflected in the sociopolitical dynamics in the US and the UK today, as expressed in the Edelman Trust Index. Based on these trends and studies, it is likely that the rise in true crime consumption correlates to the rise in surveillance tools and policies, and more specifically, to the the public’s tolerance for government intrusion into their personal privacy.

320 Million Institutions of Authority: Essays on Science, Technology, Society, Privacy, and Politics

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