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How Ethical: UK Govt Using Operational Psychology to Manipulate You Online

© Photo : PixabayPuppet manipulation
Puppet manipulation - Sputnik International
Not long ago a top secret document revealed the role psychology had in the extensive surveillance methods used by the UK's Government Communications Headquarters. But the legacy of such cognitive behavioral surveillance methods remains unchallenged.

Leaked by WikiLeaks and published by The Intercept, the report 'What UK spies do to you — in their own words', was written in 2011 by a psychologist and details the activities of the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, otherwise known as JTRIG.

According to The Intercept, the report written by Mandeep Dhami:

"Provides the most comprehensive and sweeping insight to date into the scope of the unit's extreme methods. It describes the types of targets on which the unit focuses, the psychological and behavioral research it commissions and exploits, and its future organizations aspirations."

Surveillance - Sputnik International
Behind the Screens: Top Secret Docs Reveal GCHQ Use Spy-Chology Online

Towards the end of the 42 page report, 'Examples of Social Influence Techniques and Other Relevant Behavioural Approaches' is a list of relevant issues in advertising and marketing techniques, carried out by JTRIG.

It includes: "branding, product placement, niche marketing, crowd sourcing, herd behavior, market segmentation, public relations, viral advertising/ marketing, internet/digital/online/web or e-marketing and advertising."

Revisiting the debate surrounding the techniques used by GCHQ to manipulate people online, The Intercept asked other psychologists about the ethical implications of using psychological techniques to improve GCHQ's surveillance methods.

The Intercept received a mixed response of condemnation and support for Dhami's report. A law firm representing the author say any allegations of unethical conduct are "grossly defamatory and totally untrue."

Meanwhile, Dr Stephen Soldz, co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology told The Intercept that the recommendations in Dhami's report "highlight the moral hazard of 'operational psychology' in which psychological expertise is used to further military and intelligence operations."

Yet while psychological techniques are being implemented in order to spy on people online — the psychological legacy of mass surveillance on a society remains ignored and unchallenged.

In August 2013, Chris Chambers, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the school of psychology at Cardiff University wrote an article for The Guardian suggesting that:

"Psychology forewarns us that a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on.

"A beige authoritarian landscape in which we lost the ability to relax, innovate or take risks…A world in which we may even surrender our very last line of defense — the ability to look back and ask: Why did we do this to ourselves?"

So, while the recommendations made by psychologists to GCHQ in order to manipulate people online and improve mass surveillance are scrutinized, the next debate must be about the psychological legacy of mass surveillance upon society. 

A recent United Nations assessment of Britain's human rights raised questions over the UK's laws on intercepting communications data which "allows for mass interception" and "lacks sufficient safeguards against arbitrary interference with the right to privacy."

The report suggests Britain should revise its counterterror legislation and re-look at its snooping laws.

"Measures should be taken to ensure that any interference with the right to privacy complies with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity, regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals whose communications are under direct surveillance."

The British government are currently pushing its new controversial communications data bill, dubbed the 'Snooper's Charter' through parliament. The bill would allow government agencies and police more power to snoop on people's email, web history and social media activity and collect swathes of communications data with almost cognitive impunity.

So, while the debate centers on the balance of privacy — the next discussion needs to focus on the psychological legacy of surveillance on society, or society will be left asking, as Professor Chambers suggests:

"Why did we do this to ourselves?"

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