If you have "no place to go," come here!

The Surveillance Society Goes Global

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Via the Guardian, the surveillance society is going global:

"A comprehensive transatlantic pact clearing the way for the unprecedented supply of private data on European citizens to the American authorities is to be promoted by France in support of the US-driven campaign to combat terrorism and transnational crime.

The French government is expected to use its six-month presidency of the EU, starting tomorrow, to build on 18 months of confidential negotiations between Washington and Brussels aimed at clearing the complex legal obstacles to the exchange of personal information with the Americans.

The controversial proposed pact, a "framework agreement" on common data protection principles, is likely to enable the Americans to access the credit card histories, banking details and travel habits of Europeans, although senior officials in Brussels deny US reports that the Americans will also be able to snoop on the internet browsing records of Europeans."

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike President Sarkozy and his administration?

This is one of the reasons why: the eagerness to accommodate the worst tendencies of the current American administration and throw away hard-fought rights in the name of national security or war on terror. As mentioned, this agreement has been in the works for quite some time, what was missing was a final political push for it, and Sarkozy is happy to oblige. After all, he is a strong proponent of the law-and-order state.

And as one Brussels official states, why not take the whole thing beyond just unilateral cooperation?

"There's all sorts of information stored on computers nowadays that may be of interest to law enforcement agencies. If we reach agreement, we may well contemplate turning it into a binding international agreement."

Unfortunately, this is the latest in a long line of already-agreed upon accords that took place while the rest of us were not paying as much attention as we should have. Of course, these agreements and their negotiations were concocted behind closed doors, so, there wasn't much chance for public input. Anyway, it is pretty much a done deal:

"The US drive to gain access to the private data of Europeans is the latest episode in a systematic American campaign.

Under separate agreements being negotiated, Washington is insisting on having armed guards on flights from Europe to the US, is introducing a new electronic travel authorisation system where travellers to the US would need to apply online for permission to fly before buying a ticket, and last year the EU yielded to American pressure to supply the US authorities with 19 pieces of information on passengers flying from Europe to America."

I wonder what the impact on tourism in the United States will be. At the same time, it is so cheap, right now, for Euro zone tourists to visit the US that that might offset any negative impact on the industry.

Apparently, the only real sticking point that remains to be negotiated is whether and how Europeans can seek legal redress for access to their private information if they think they have been hurt by the agreement. Anyone wants to bet that such recourse will be extremely limited?

For those unfamiliar with the concept of surveillance society (facilitated by the emergence of the network society), let me provide my usual primer on the subject.

The Network Society

As defined by Manuel Castells, “the network society (…) is made up of networks of production, power and experience, which construct a culture of virtuality in the global flows that transcend time and space” (1998:370). When economics, politics and culture become organized predominantly through networks, then, almost the totality of human experience becomes embedded in the network society. Darin Barney (2004) outlines the characteristics of the network society as follows:

  1. It is based on informational capitalism, that is, where economic activity is centered on the production and distribution of knowledge to foster innovation, flexibility and increased technological control over production processes (such as computerization of assembly lines).

  2. It is economically global. Companies, regions, cities, workplaces, markets and individual workers become flexible nodes. This economic arrangement puts labor at a disadvantage vis a vis capital since the latter flows more easily than the former. Labor is territorial and grounded whereas capital flows cross the globe through electronic networks.

  3. Human experience is based on ‘timeless time’ and ‘space of flows’ to use Castells’s formulation. Through electronic communication networks, human experience becomes detached from time and place. Individuals can communicate instantly across the globe. Unprecedented volumes of information are transmitted worldwide at a high speed. And as Barney puts it, the network society is ‘always on.’ Where people are geographically located becomes less important as their embeddedness in communication flows.

  4. Politically, power in the network society is defined as access to networks and control over flows. Being a node in a network is a source of power but one that involves a certain level of affluence to build the relevant infrastructure. In the network society, not all nodes are equal, a core node exercises more power than a semi-peripheral or peripheral node, whether we are talking about countries, firms, regions or individuals. Similarly, financial flows are more powerful than flows of ideas that fuel contemporary social movements (such the environmental or anti-globalization movements). Certain nodes are primarily producers (such as corporations) whereas others are mainly recipients (such as individuals using their internet access). Production involves more power than reception. Some nodes have access to more information (governments and corporations) than others (citizens). Finally, certain nodes (such as internet service providers) control what volume and quality of information other nodes (users) receive. In other words, access and control are sources of power and stratification in the network society which is by no means egalitarian.

  5. These lines of division over access and control, as well as between local roots and global flows are the main sources of conflict in the network society. Most human experience is still rooted in local conditions and environment. However, people also see themselves at the mercy of networks in which they have no access and global flows over which they have no control. This conflict is at the heart of the anti-globalization movement.

The Surveillance Society

The network society allows for the fast transmission of information. But what kind of information gets transmitted through information networks? A great deal of information flows relate to people in their statuses as citizens, workers and consumers. In post-industrial network societies, a great deal of activities from the state, employers and companies is devoted to collecting information about individuals to shape and influence behavior.

This process of data-collection is now so thorough and widespread – thanks to information technology – that it is possible to talk about the network society as surveillance society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control” .

Surveillance has always had two faces: care and control. Surveillance technology is often introduced in the name of security, to prevent all sorts of criminal and unacceptable behaviors in public and private places. Surveillance cameras are installed in malls, highways, in most large cities, in workplaces and schools in order to make people feel safer and prevent undesirable behaviors (the definition of which can vary). Behind the invocation of greater protection – care – however, the other side of surveillance is always present: behavior control.

In-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, highway toll passes, credit cards, cookies, spyware, clickstream and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. In this context, the rise of the surveillance society has generated concerns about privacy, but, as David Lyon correctly notes, privacy is an individual matter, rather, the omnipresence of surveillance is a social matter that has deeper implications than privacy.

A main social aspect of surveillance is its exponential growth thanks to information technologies. The state used to have almost a monopoly over surveillance. Most surveillance technology was used for state bureaucratic (social security numbers or national identification cards) and law enforcement purposes. In the current global context, surveillance has spread to practically all sectors of society as data flows move more freely from one area to another: for instance, employers can require criminal background checks on prospective employees from state databases.

Conversely, in the United States, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, phone and cable companies may be required to turn over customer information to the government. As David Lyon (2001:33) puts it, “The notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracies to flood every conceivable social conduit”. As a result, many other social actors, such as businesses, have become involved in the creation or use of surveillance.

Surveillance has not only spread to the private sector but also gone global not because technology is available. Social factors are the driving force behind the expansion of surveillance. The first such factor is what David Lyon call “disappearing bodies.” Disappearing bodies refers to the fact that a significant part of our activities and interactions take place at the distance, without people actually being in each other’s presence. Electronic interactions and transactions make bodies disappear.

Online shopping, instant messaging and live video streaming are all activities without physical space and bodies. Such disembodiment of interaction raises issues of trust: how does an employer know that employees working from home are actually working?

How does the online store know that the customer has enough credit for a purchase? Surveillance technology, such as performance tracking – technology allowing an employer to monitor keyboard and online activity – as well as instant credit verification keep track of individuals even in disembodied situations. Similarly, with more and more people on the move worldwide (business travelers, tourists, economic and political refugees and migrants), transit areas such as airport terminals have intensified their surveillance apparatus in order to keep track of increasingly mobile bodies. The trust issue has become especially crucial in the context of fear of terrorist attacks.

At the same time, our bodies have become increased objects of surveillance and information as well, mainly through biometrics – the range of technology used to measure human physical characteristics for identification purposes. Whether we want to or not, our bodies are major providers of surveillance data. The most traditional form of biometrics is fingerprinting as well as urine and blood tests.

However improvement in medical and surveillance technology have opened an entire new field of data that can be extracted from the body without our knowledge and not just for law enforcement purposes but as part of everyday surveillance. The body can be used as a form of identification: some international airports use retinal scan on foreign visitors. Corporations use voice recognition software. The body itself becomes a password. Mall and public places use facial recognition software for comparison with video surveillance images.

Employers have access to medical record to determine the potential health risks posed by prospective employees. They may also impose constraints on their employees’ bodies by requiring that employees lose weight or not smoke. Of course, all these different technologies are produced by private companies in such a booming market that it is possible to speak of the rise of a security-industrial complex.

The emergence of the risk society is another major social factor that promoted the growth of surveillance. Globalization involves risks: political, economic, social and environmental. The global financial market is, by definition, unstable so investors rely on networked databases that can give them real time information on the different world stock exchanges as well as on wide ranges of economic indicators.

Politically, major areas of the world are in chaos and fears of global terrorism are high. To monitor and control such risks, core countries have established means of monitoring communications on a global scale – a process called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance refers to the “systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology” (Clarke, 1988). Giant databases have been created to intercept and process telephone conversations, faxes and emails that contain certain words or originate in parts of the world related to terrorism. Global agencies, such as INTERPOL, are in charge of such global surveillance.

Finally, many research institutes around the world monitor various ecological phenomena such as global warming or the hole in the ozone layer to predict future environmental conditions and their social impact. Most surveillance, public or private, has to do with managing risk in the sense that the more information is gathered by the right agencies, the more we can reduce uncertainties related to global conditions.

According to David Lyon (2001), the major social function of surveillance is as a sorting mechanism. Surveillance as social sorting refers to the use of data to identify, to classify, to order and to control entire populations: using searchable databases, such as zip codes and internet activities, “marketers sift and sort populations according to their spending patterns, then treat different clusters accordingly.

Groups likely to be valuable to marketers get special attention, special deals, and efficient after-sales service, while others, not among the creamed-off categories, must make do with less information and inferior service” (Lyon, 2003:14).

This form of discrimination – also called digital redlining or weblining – reflects the use of surveillance to include or exclude entire populations from certain advantages. Based on information abstracted from databases, credit card companies can provide or deny access to credit. Insurance companies can also provide or refuse coverage is information reveals that certain categories of the population represent too high a risk. For instance, genetic testing that can potentially reveal a predisposition to certain incurable diseases, such as Huntington, can be used by health care providers to refuse coverage to individuals with the “wrong” genes.

At the same time, the use of searchable databases is used commercially to provide individualized service. For instance, many online stores, such as, automatically use purchase records to provide individualized recommendations and offers to their customers in hope of increasing the number of volumes purchased.

In a sense, every online purchase made by an individual creates a sum of information regarding lifestyle, spending habits, hobbies and preferences. Such information, if used judiciously by marketers, creates a greater certainty of what this individual will buy in the future, thereby reducing the basic risk involved in any business: will people buy what a company offers? While mass advertising is still used, more and more businesses now use the wealth of information available in databases to provide individualized marketing.

As David Lyon (2003) puts it, the same surveillance technology creates categorical suspicion in one type of social situations – in law enforcement and security business – and categorical seduction in others – marketing.

Categorical suspicion refers to the control function of surveillance whereby entire categories of people are subject to intensified surveillance due to their characteristics, such as Muslims and Arab travelers after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Categorical seduction refers to a similar process used in commerce to entice certain categories of shoppers (those with the “appropriate” credit level, lifestyle and buying habits) into particular forms of consumption.

Both processes result in the blurring of the boundaries between public and private behavior creating what David Brin (1998) calls a transparent society. The concept of transparent society extends Goffman’s notion of total institution to the entire society. In such a society, there is no place to hide: the privacy of one’s home is an illusion as our most private environments are wired into global networks and even our bodies become providers of information fed into the global society.

Is it time to re-define totalitarianism yet? Let me make the guess that one of the latest forms of social inequalities will the power and capacity to avoid extensive surveillance, that is where privacy will become a possession of the upper classes.

No votes yet


Fredster's picture
Submitted by Fredster on

This is getting too scary...

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

It's ok, Fredster, the Mighty Corrente Building is impervious to surveillance mechanisms!

tnjen's picture
Submitted by tnjen on

-- it's about money. They probably get to spy on us in return and sell what they gather back to both our government and our corporations.

We've all been monetized. :(