An introduction to the surveillance society

In the developed and in parts of the developing world, surveillance societies have started to emerge. Surveillance societies are societies which function, in part, because of the extensive collection, recording, storage, analysis and application of information on individuals and groups in those societies as they go about their lives. Retail loyalty programmes, website cookies, national identity schemes, routine health screening and no-fly lists all qualify as surveillance. Each features, in different measure, the routine collection of data about individuals with the specific purpose of governing, regulating, managing or influencing what they do in the future. This is our understanding of surveillance.

Thinking about society using surveillance as a concept enables us to mount an ethical, social and spatial critique of the information processing practices which are part of the way society is formed, governed and managed. It enables us to question and evidence its impact on the social fabric: on discrimination, trust, accountability, transparency, access to services, mobility, freedoms, community and social justice. Moreover it enables us to engage in debates with regulators, businesses and journalists about the consequences of their surveillance-based activities. This is what SSN is about.

So, instead of thinking about surveillance as a single all-knowing oppressive force – as George Orwell depicts in the novel Nineteen Eighty Four – we prefer to think of it as something which is woven into everyday life and that is more complex and multi-layered. The covert hi-tech world of the spy or the all-seeing evil despot are but tiny aspects of the surveillance society. Begin, for example, by thinking about the many different activities in which we engage during the course of a single day. At different times we interact with surveillance as part of these activities. As workers, performance information is collected by the organizations for which we work. Managers use that information to let us know how we are performing in our jobs and how we can improve in future.

As consumers our transactions are monitored by financial institutions to detect fraud and our preferences are monitored by loyalty programmes to enable future marketing campaigns to target us. As mobile(cell) phone users our movements and communications can be tracked for use by the emergency services: some people use location based services, such as GPS, to find their way around new places. Surveillance is something which can confer access, entitlement and benefit as well as something which is dangerous, oppressive and discriminatory. Individuals now actively manage their own data profiles knowing they will be able to customize and improve their services as they do so.

Wherever we find surveillance it tends to perform the same function: it enables corporations and governments to manage or govern resources, activities and populations. It works through interconnected but distributed chains of organizations, infrastructures and people and its application is aligned to different organizational strategies and purposes. How surveillance plays out in a call centre, where every minute of the working day is monitored and recorded, as compared to a military setting where armies are using unmanned aerial vehicles to look for the enemy, is obviously very different in terms of its processes and consequences. Both situations, however, still feature surveillance as one of their organizing principles.

If surveillance is a normal aspect of the management and governance of modern life, then what’s wrong with it? Using surveillance to achieve one’s aims, no matter how grand or how miniscule, bestows great power. And to label a phenomenon as ‘surveillant’ involves acknowledging that information processing which takes place as part of governance or management never takes place on a level playing field. Some interests will be served, while others will be marginalised. Some will receive benefits and entitlements, while others will not. Surveillance coalesces in places where power accumulates, underpinning and enhancing the activities of those who rule and govern.

The danger is that surveillance power becomes ubiquitous: embedded within systems, structures and the interests they represent. Its application becomes taken for granted and its consequences go un-noticed. As data travel silently across international boundaries, between national states and within transnational corporations, the impact of surveillance becomes even harder to identify, regulate and debate. For us, it is important that this power, based on the oversight of activities and of personal data, is wielded fairly, responsibly, and with due respect to human rights, civil liberties and the law. Wielding surveillance power can have very undesirable consequences: world leaders appeal to some supposed greater good such as ‘the war on terror’ to justify unusual surveillance tactics on everyday citizens. Sifting through consumer records to create a profitable clientele means that certain groups obtain special treatment based on ability to pay whereas those deemed ‘less valuable’ fall by the wayside. Surveillance fosters suspicion in those who wield it. It focuses on correcting the negative and it gives a message to those who are watched that they are not trusted to behave in the appropriate manner. If we are living in a society which relies on surveillance to get things done are we committing slow social suicide?

If you would like to read more about these debates, please refer to the ‘Public Discussion Document’ written as part of ‘A Report on the Surveillance Society’. You will also find popular and more academic discussions of surveillance in our ‘Reading’ section.

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