It began with a back-of-mind whisper eight or nine years ago, suspicion giving way to awareness: I might be under surveillance. I lived in Hong Kong then. Edward Snowden had holed up in the Mira Hotel a few blocks down the street from my apartment. I felt bad for the guy. I fled the US once, albeit on my own terms and without the intelligence community in pursuit. History has a habit of proving whistleblowers right. In the meantime, while you wait for the details to emerge, you still have to buy groceries. So on Twitter, I offered. It was not a political act. You just can’t live on convenience-store ramen and room service forever. This might not have been my brightest moment, I’ll admit. He didn’t reply, and subsequently went into hiding. After that, I wondered: Did I just put a bullseye on my back?
I have a rather large head. If you’ve ever been to Australia, you might have seen the mannequins in clothing stores. The bodies are more or less human. Huge cartoon-like manga heads sit atop them. Think Betty Boop; think Peanuts. They’re grotesque. Although mine is not that out of proportion, it seems bigger than most. Hats are tight. So are glasses. When I moved to Britain in 2020, this presented certain problems. Apart from a few kitchen items I thought I’d need upon arrival—my French press and my favorite coffee mug, among other things—I had to furnish my whole house from scratch. Here’s a thing I learned: metal colanders are not common here, especially if you want the kind with a handle. There are plastic ones. Also mesh, but one of those would be more like a yarmulke than the helmet I need. I can improvise. Aluminium foil, as it’s spelled here, should do the trick. The sparkly colander crinkles when I put it on, but at least it fits over my head. It disrupts the panopticon. Skynet can’t see me. Can the neighbors?
Everybody knows who they are: the whispering faceless people who are invisible and everywhere and can do things, the villagers with their rumors and torches and power tools. Lyrics are written about them. These grey sideliners can destroy relationships, cast the innocent into abjection, ruin lives. They’re also good at infrastructure. They’re building a new road, a new bridge, a new shopping center. They say creeps into conversation daily. They creep. But who are they, exactly? Neighbors you catch glimpses of. Students taking classes other than your own. People you pass on the sidewalk. Agents of enemy states. Do they turn their heads as you walk by? Photograph you, or murmur voice notes into their phones? Fill out reports when they get home? Send faxes? In the interest of not letting them see me in my new house, I bought the thickest light-blocking curtains I could find at Dunelm. I was hoping to find some that might block out X-rays and satellite transmissions, but no such luck. They just block out the sun. My bedroom faces east. On those rare mornings when the sky isn’t a solid pall of low clouds, sunrise can be a bit much. The light creeps in anyway. There’s a great deal of creeping.
As a child, I was under constant surveillance—the extrasensory kind. My mother claimed she was a powerful clairvoyant. She kept telepathic tabs on my sister and me throughout the day. She always knew where we were, what we were doing, what we were thinking. The world had become so jaded and dangerous, she thought it best to keep us as safe and innocent as possible. We’d have better childhoods that way. Happier ones. To that end, she’d remind us she could see us at all times. I’d ask, even in the bathroom? She’d reply, I gave birth to you and changed your diapers. She’d tell stories of her fabulous psychic exploits: how she could read our father’s thoughts, how she could tell when we were upset, how she could predict the future. As the years passed, I worked to fabricate a barrier around my mind so that no one could get in. I now verge on invisible. Most people emit a faint “I’m here” signal but I don’t; I have no presence at all in most rooms unless I choose to turn it on, which is exhausting. This is annoying at bars and restaurants when I need service. I might not need that colander.
Once upon a time in France, motorists would spray a thick coat of hairspray on their license plates in an attempt to fool speed cameras. When the stuff dried, it would form a reflective surface—a translucent balaclava. I thought about trying it out myself but when I lived on the West Coast, everyone sped. No need to put AquaNet on my Honda. Once upon a time in Singapore, a friend told me there were hidden CCTV cameras everywhere. Security agents with binoculars stationed in surrounding shopping malls and office buildings, scanning for scofflaws and troublemakers. Gum-chewers, jaywalkers, graffiti taggers. Even the attendants in public restrooms would harangue you if you forgot to flush the toilet. Order uber alles. I was careful not to jaywalk. Once upon a time in Hong Kong, I corrected a student when he said Taiwan and meant Taipei: “But Taiwan is the country, not the city!” The four girls from mainland China in that class gasped in unison. In China, there’s always a Party monitor in every university classroom, spying on the lecturer. That wasn’t the case in Hong Kong when I lived there. Or was it? I spent the next couple of weeks anxious I’d get sacked.
After the 2014 protests in Hong Kong, I began to wonder if my Internet activity was being monitored. I ticked several “troublesome foreigner” boxes: writer, publisher, academic, American, active on social media, gay. The night the protests kicked off, I was out there. I didn’t get tear-gassed—not then, anyway—but could smell and feel the stinging dregs of it hanging in the air. Like many in that well-educated, hyperconnected city, I gave little thought to the traces my reportage might leave. Threads on Twitter. Rants on Facebook. I think I still had a blog then. I was careful online: aggressive ad blockers, tracking blockers, script blockers, you name it. At some point I got a VPN. In fact, I got two: one for personal use and another my university furnished for work trips to China. I can’t say when my suspicions gave way to actual concern. Finances and porn: that’s what it boiled down to. I didn’t want anyone to see how much or how little I had in the bank and where I kept it. And the rest: well, you get the idea. How much or how little. Where I wanted it put. I covered the webcam on my laptop with a slip of folded paper. It’s still there. The show’s over.
In late 2015, five members of the staff of Causeway Bay Books, a bookstore that specialized in books on political topics that could not be published in China, were kidnapped by some mysterious they. They detained three while on visits to the mainland, nabbed the fourth at his home in Hong Kong, and renditioned the last from his residence in Thailand. It seemed the books had rankled senior government officials in Beijing. Ergo, the store and its staff had to vanish, despite not having broken any laws. When you’re in detention in China, the surveillance is constant, oppressive, or so I’ve been told. Your jailers watch you 24/7, even while you’re sleeping or taking a shit. They bark questions. There are cameras. To keep you from committing suicide, you’re given a toothbrush tied to a string. If you try to choke yourself with it, your captors will yank it out of your mouth. In the interest of not being arrested, my business partner at the press and I dropped one China-related book from our list and paused sales of another by a Hong Kong author who’d been deemed politically problematic. We were not kidnapped, but made sense to assume they were watching.
During the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, I had to proceed as if my Internet activity was being monitored. I ticked the same “troublesome foreigner” boxes plus a couple of new ones: participant in multiple marches, known associate of high-profile activists, strident on social media. In the first protests that year, people were less concerned, less afraid. It was Hong Kong, after all. Protests were part of the culture there. People felt safe, until suddenly we weren’t. As the violence intensified, week after week, month after month, covering your face became standard procedure. Baseball cap, sunglasses, surgical mask. The march organizers knew where CCTV cameras had been installed. At critical points, people would be stationed to warn marchers to hide their faces. Sometimes they’d hand out surgical masks if they had any. But: I’m white and my arms are tattooed. Not hard to identify. Also, there were infiltrators. And as the protests wore on and the government dug in its heels and gassed the whole city, new questions arose. Black-clad citizens tore down one new “smart camera” that the government insisted wasn’t meant for surveillance. No more were put up, but it triggered a mass decision to go dark on social media. I deleted my Twitter accounts and locked down my postings on Facebook. Deleted photos, stopped blogging, switched to encrypted apps, hid behind the VPN, frantically looked for jobs elsewhere. Even in English, there were codes, slang, vernacular work-arounds when discussing protest-related topics. You never knew who was listening, who was watching. Safer to assume you were not safe. Because in Hong Kong, they were more than just lazy linguistic placeholders.
Surveillance shapes your life when you grow up in a small town. Someone’s always watching: the neighbors, random passersby, fellow students. They behave like agents of enemy states, starting whisper campaigns, spreading rumors. The effect is more profound when you’re gay and in the South or somewhere like it. Therefore, you self-monitor: your gait, your voice, your gestures, your clothes. Does your ass swing when you walk. Do you exaggerate certain syllables. Do your wrists go a bit limp now and then. Don’t wear pink. Expect to get hurt. A walk down the street to a shop can result in your face being slammed against the sidewalk, or worse. You’re well acquainted with the dripping itch of spit as it runs down your cheek. If you’re well-enough known or just obvious, no one will help. And yet, the surveillance also includes the few souls who aren’t like that, who might intervene. The surveillance takes place because of everything about you and nothing you’ve chosen to be. What is authentic and what is performance? It doesn’t matter. Nothing exists but the relentlessness. If you want to live, you grow armor.
I’m old enough to remember the advent of motion-sensing urinals. You stood in front of the electric eye as we called it then, did your business, and stepped away. It would flush automatically. Of course I was paranoid. Psychic monitoring was one thing. I didn’t have to see the equipment. But I didn’t want the leering creep on the other side of the electric eye to see my equipment. It’s all right, my parents assured me. There’s nobody there, it’s not a camera, it’s just a machine. No one can see you. As much as I wanted to believe them, I started using bathroom stalls whenever I could. When I got older, I began to care less. I understood the technology, for one thing, and besides: if someone wanted to see my junk that badly, let them look. Consent is not the antidote to surveillance, defiance under a façade of discretion is. I learned that lesson on sidewalks and in public restrooms as a boy. There has always been a bullseye on my back. I do not consent. I have never consented.
Marshall Moore is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He has written several novels and collections of short fiction, the most recent being Inhospitable (Camphor Press, 2018). He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth, and he teaches creative writing and publishing at Falmouth University. His next books are a memoir titled I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing (Rebel Satori Press, 2022) and a co-edited academic collection on the subject of creative practice. For more information, please visit www.marshallmoore.com, or follow him on Twitter at @iridiumgobbler.