Of course, this is undoubtedly true on at least one level: a surveillance system that does not identify and track particular individuals performs almost no useful function, but merely aggregates billions of data points which are almost beyond the wit of man to utilise in an effective manner. False positives can easily draw surveillance down on entirely innocent people - just as it can miss those plotting to unleash mayhem on the streets.
But what is reported by some individuals goes beyond mere surveillance, and into direct personal harassment. This can take the form of voices that only the subject can hear, to the use of helicopters and UAV drone vehicles to deliberately follow an individual to apply relentless psychological pressure on them. In some extreme cases, the use of Directed Energy Weapons has been alleged to have caused death.
To those versed in various diverse fields, several different readings might occur.
Psychologists would read such claims through a diagnostic prism - citing paranoid delusion as perhaps the first port of call. Technically, this is known as 'persecutory delusion' within the field of psychology. Moutoussis summarised this perspective aptly in his 2007 paper:
"Research in many cultures has consistently found that the most common type of delusion involves the belief that the self is being threatened by malevolent others"
The psychologicial paradigm is thus that people under stress - particularly stress brought on by their own wrong-doing - are prone to delusions that their movements are being tracked or their personal lives being interfered with by mysterious agencies. These agencies can either be people personally known to the sufferer, or official bodies such as the police, military or government. In such a state, sufferers also develop a self-perpetuating belief system: evidence that supports their belief is taken uncritically on board, whereas contradictory evidence is effectively ignored or cast aside. In effect this creates a highly specific conspiracy theory whereby the sufferer themselves is the sole victim of the conspiracy, rather than society as a whole. By some estimates, up to 10-15% of the population will suffer from paranoia of this sort at some point in their lives.
But, of course, that is but one take on the matter.
The Case for Electronic Harassment
Against this, it should be remembered that there are historical precedents for manipulation of the truth. The police have shown themselves many times willing to persecute the innocent - fabricating some information, hiding other information and utilising interrogative techniques that border on the brink of psychological torture. We are reminded of cases such as that of Stefan Kiszko, who signed a 'confession' of the murder of Lesley Molseed without being in the presence of a legal representative, after several hours of relentles questioning and with mental impairments of his own. In fact, to dip into personal anecdotage, I myself served on jury duty where a case was dismissed when it was revealed that a confession given as the major piece of the prosecution's case had been obtained from a man with a mental age of 6.
These cases may be outliers, but their existence shows that it is not simply enough to dismiss claims of harassment.
Specifically in the case of electronic harassment, it is also wise to remember that the state do have huge surveillance capacities - both in technical ability and in the eyes of the law - to intercept personal communications. Moreover, there have been several public trials of technology designed specifically to do what believers in electronic harassment allege.
The so-called 'mosquito device' is a system that allows the broadcast of a high-pitched signal that only the ears of the relatively young are able to detect. Used by shopkeepers, the effect is said to cause sufficient distress to youngsters that groups who gather around certain premises are dispersed elsewhere. Furthermore, the world of commerce has trialled "talking train windows." This controversial system enables the broadcast of audible signals to anyone who rests their head against a glass window - and was first demonstrated by Audiva on trains in Germany to surprise them with adverts for Sky Germany.
More directly, it was confirmed that "sonic weapons" were available for deployment in London during the 2012 Olympic games. American-made Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) can be used to send verbal warnings over a long distance or emit a beam of pain-inducing tones. As such, they lend credence to the beliefs of those who claim to have been the target of electronic harassment.
More routinely, data gathered on the internet is often tied to you personally. To use this site itself as an example, the use of plugins provided by Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook mean that those companies can track your visits to this site and, in some cases, target advertising towards you based on your browsing history. Were I so minded (and I'm not!) it would be possible for me to pay for Google advertising that would display adverts for Weird Island to you as you travelled around the internet after visiting my site. It is this technology that leads to the sometimes eerie experience of being shown banner advertisements for sites or products you have already looked at. While this is generally the routine and banal operation of commerce, it takes little imagination to see how such technology could be repurposed in order to target individuals for other reasons.
In 2013, it was revealed that a trial had taken place in London in which devices were placed in bins. These devices enabled advertisers to target people carrying smartphones in the immediate vicinity and record the interaction by use of the phones' MAC code - the unique code which identifies a mobile phone. When the use of the technology was revealed, there was a predictable outcry which prompted the company's CEO Kaveh Memari to write: "I'm afraid that in the interest of a good headline and story there has been an emphasis on style over substance that makes our technology trial slightly more interesting than it is." Nonetheless - and despite a subsequent ban on the technology - the proof of concept has undeniably been carried out successfully and on an unsuspecting public.
Taken together, therefore, you are left with motive, means and opportunity for agencies to carry out electronic harassment. This doesn't prove that it exists (and there is ample evidence in favour of a purely psychological explanation) but it would behoove us to remind ourselves that technology and capability now exists to theoretically allow for it to become reality.
See also: conspiracy theories