Magazine article The New American

Tracking Your Digital Trail: Innocent-Seeming Questionnaires, Tests, and Surveys Are Increasingly Being Disseminated by Government Officials So That They Have Complete Histories on Every Citizen

Magazine article The New American

Tracking Your Digital Trail: Innocent-Seeming Questionnaires, Tests, and Surveys Are Increasingly Being Disseminated by Government Officials So That They Have Complete Histories on Every Citizen

Article excerpt

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At this writing, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina is busy apologizing for her politically incorrect gaffe in arguing against legislation that would expand federal hate-crime laws to include sexual orientation. She pointed to the in famous Matthew Shepard case as a "hoax" inasmuch as Shepard's killers appeared to have been interested in drugs, not sexual-identity issues.

Were Foxx a teenager today, she would be spared the necessity of balancing her conservative views on sexuality against the left's Orwellian obsession with semantics. School counselors would steer her away from career paths in politics, journalism, or teaching (all careers that influence public perceptions) based on her answers on school-based, opinion-oriented tests and surveys, cross-matched with her family's religious affiliations, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and other "private" information that she might inadvertently let slip throughout her K-12 years. She would also be "guided" by social-studies and "health" teachers who are aggressive in "helping" students overcome "inflexible" and "intolerant" attitudes--a strategy now made infinitely simple via computer.

Since the mid-1970s, market research firms and pollsters have worked to collect value and lifestyle ("VALS") data on children and adults from any source capable of generating an analysis--popular magazines, surveys, telephone polls, school questionnaires, psychological screening instruments, census forms, and even academic tests (eventually renamed "assessments" to avoid allegations of testing fraud). The idea was to cross-match information so that behavioral analysts could find out what makes certain groups (and individuals) tick--and then see if people could be made to "tick" differently via an advertising or public relations campaign. The purpose was to sell a product, be it coffee, a candidate for public office, or a political agenda.

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A few parents were aware that such tactics were encroaching upon educational settings, but viewed them as more an invasion of privacy than an outright violation of their childrearing prerogatives.

Until the other shoe dropped.

Along came the computer and the Internet. Both vastly facilitated identification, data-capture, and cross-matching capabilities. The technology morphed like greased lightning on steroids in the 1980s and '90s. Today, the "dream degree" is a dual doctorate in psychology and statistics, considered staples of marketing, polling, and advertising industries. What it means to the average citizen is that behavioral scientists (i.e., psychologists and statisticians) can predict how people might react to hot-button issues as many as five years down the road and work to change perceptions or reactions. In an environment where one political worldview dominates (i.e., controls the bureaucracy), this equates to psychopolitics--a term first popularized by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov just 30 years ago.

Governments, of course, have long recognized the advantages of knowing everything about their citizens, especially their attitudes. Hitler and Stalin would have drooled over today's global positioning satellites and information systems. Even in the 1990s, politicians had to confine their information quests to groups, factions, and socio-demographic blocs. Now data-collection and analysis have been taken to a whole new level of individualization. Terms like "data mining" and "profiling" became increasingly familiar following September 11, 2001. In reality, both were in the works prior to 9/11, but understated as in expressions like "market/consumer research," "background check," and "psychographics."

Certainly, it was not evident to average Americans that their behaviors and beliefs were undergoing long-term monitoring, although phrases like "molding public opinion" rang an alarm bell among more sophisticated audiences. …

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