Sunday, June 7, 2015

The chilling effect in a sauna...

Receiving a chilling effect in a 80 degrees somewhat sauna, is that possible? Well, that depends totally on your perspective. If you think temperature wise, you probably won't receive a nasty cold chill. But when you think about a Peeping Tom sitting right next to you might just change your mind.

The reason I talk about privacy in context of a sauna is because of my wife told me a story recently. She went to a sauna, enjoyed her time there, but was bothered with a man looking at her. Thankfully nothing out of the ordinary happened and she enjoyed her evening, although she came home early.

The very fact that my wife was bothered with a man looking at her, in a sauna, seems strange at first. People look at each other in a sauna, right? But when you think about it, it actually isn't. It is even fundamental to the core of us being human and the non-written rules that apply to society every day. Let me take you through some thoughts of mine about this topic.

What is 'nakedness'?

In case of the sauna the nakedness is as literal as it can be. But there are other ways you can be very naked. Think about your doctor's appointment, when you get a massage, when you are screened by your employer, or when you try to get a positive financial status. There are more examples of course, but the point is that someone other than you is able to see more of you than that normally would apply in other situations.

It is very important that the one that is being 'naked' feels secure. And the more 'naked' you are, the more you need to feel secure. I will get back to that later.

Seeing versus Observing

So there is seeing, looking, and observing. As with the man in the sauna, it is obvious that people in a sauna see each other. We might even look at each other. Most people are probably okay with that. But things start to get creepy when someone is observing (a.k.a. staring) at people. A non-written rule has been broken and thus we get the nasty chilling effect and shiver right out of the sauna. Well.... in some cases perhaps.

When does seeing ends and looking begins?

This is for the most part about control, relatively speaking. When you are laying in a hospital recovering from surgery you are being observed by the hospital staff. You most likely are nowhere near being bothered about that. That has to do with the sense of control. To the very least, you most likely did comply to the situation at hand or will do so when you have been recovered. I tend to say that hospital staff is not observing its patients, but it is looking after them with the help of machinery that gives them data to execute that task.

But when does looking after ends and observing begins?

You can be seen, or being looked after, or you can be observed. Observing in this context is different then the looking after of hospital staff. Observing is never in the interest of the one being observed. It is always in the interest of the one who is observing (this statement is stripped of nuance on purpose). In the case of the sauna, the man was observing my wife. He was not just seeing her and certainly was not looking after her (in her interest). The situation was not in her control and it was in a situation that she was more naked than she would have been in another situation.

Lets take, for the sake of the argument, that observing is fundamentally wrong. But why is it wrong and what does it trigger?

The Chilling Effect

When you are 'naked', you need to feel more secure and when you are being observed you will feel less secure. But not everyone feels the same when he or she is 'naked' and does not feels observed as quick as others. This is because we are all unique and experience the world different from one another. But what is the common ground here?

The common ground

If you feel 'naked', you will probably need to have control over the situation. The more control you have, the more secure you will feel. The more you are being observed, the less control you have. When you have less control than you feel you need, you will feel insecure. And that is the common ground that applies to everyone.

And chances are relatively high that when you feel to much insecurity, you will start to behave differently than you normally would. And that trigger is called the chilling effect. In the case of the sauna, my wife went to a different one and she got home earlier than usual. And thus my wife had the chilling effect in the sauna because she behaved differently that she normally would.

Privacy and Surveillance

I know observing is needed to make society more secure. Suspects are being observed (remind my statement here: not in the interest of the one being observed) for criminal activities. Therefore, I am not saying that surveillance in its whole is wrong, I am saying that mass-surveillance (observing groups of people) is fundamentally wrong. Targeted-surveillance (observing specific individuals) on the other hand is, with a legal justification and court order of course, justified and an effective measure to catch criminals and terrorists (again, only with a legal basis!).

Targeted-surveillance of a country's own populations should be done under the jurisdiction of the (federal) police and targeted-surveillance of foreign populations should be done under the jurisdiction of the intelligence agencies. We should even be very conservative about applying mass-surveillance to allied or even friendly states.

Mass-surveillance ultimately chills entire populations and what will happen next is just a history book away.


In my opinion, above is the reason why observing in the interest of the one that is observing is fundamentally wrong. It will trigger the chilling effect (eventually) of the one that is being observed. And thus it alters behavior of individuals or groups which leads to situations in which non of us will feel secure as described in books like '1984' and 'A brave new world'.

Let me end with a quote about privacy that sums it all up.

Privacy is more about control than it is about secrecy. Bruce Schneier, Schneier on Security (2008).

And now I am curious about what your thoughts on the subject are. Please feel free to share them so we can talk about it.



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