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The idea that we are living in a surveillance society is not new. George Orwell’s 1984, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 are just a few examples of novels that have addressed the theme. And since the discipline began, sociologists have been interested in how societies use surveillance as a means of social control.
Today we will discuss the idea of surveillance and the surveillance society. On Wednesday we will continue this discussion by focusing on New Information Technologies and Surveillance.
“Purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection.” (UK Information Commissioner’s Office, A Report on the Surveillance Society, p. 4)
- Purposeful: there is a reason that can be used to justify the surveillance
- Routine: it isn’t unusual, it happens as part of our normal lives
- Systematic: it is planned and scheduled, not random
- Focused: it examines details that can be linked to individuals rather than just aggregating community information
We often associate surveillance primarily with (authoritarian) governments and with technology. But although governments of all types frequently engage in surveillance, businesses and individuals do as well. And although technology is often used to carry out surveillance, it is not a requirement. In a surveillance society, however, the (often widely accepted) use of technologies to help generate and process surveillance information has the potential to fundamentally change social relationships.
“The surveillance society is a society which is organised and structured using surveillance-based techniques. To be under surveillance means having information about one’s movements and activities recorded by technologies, on behalf of the organisations and governments that structure our society. This information is then sorted, sifted and categorised, and used as a basis for decisions which affect our life chances.” (A Report on the Surveillance Society: Summary Report, p. 3)
Surveillance is not always a negative thing, and the purposes for surveillance are often widely shared in societies:
- Law enforcement and protection of order
- Maintaining public health
- Ensuring efficiency management of public and private concerns
Surveillance can refer to physical observation of people or places, but it also (and increasingly) refers to gathering, sorting, and interpreting data about them. Surveillance is a pervasive part of modern life. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that residents of major cities are photographed by surveillance cameras every five minutes on average. Many of our interactions with governments and businesses require us to provide personal data, whether with ID cards, bank teller cards, or in other forms, and this data is stored and available for a variety of uses, whether legitimate or not.
Discussion: What are some examples of surveillance you can think of? What purposes might they be meant to achieve?
Even when the purposes of surveillance may be widely shared, the surveillance can raise issues such as:
- Violation of privacy
- Misuse of information/abuse of authority
- UK Information Commissioner’s Office, A Report on the Surveillance Society (links to full report and supporting material)
- CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering)
- The Surveillance Camera Players (New York)
- Urban Eye Project (UK)