Surveillance is defined as a social technology of power and the traditional approach to surveillance studies has been to understand its central role in the maintenance and reproduction of the social order, But surveillance is also a fantasy of power – the creation of virtual control where supervision may not be a social operation – and to understand what the technology of surveillance is, we have to appreciate the fantasy that drives it (William Bogard: 1996, 8).
The modern bureaucratic state gathers massive amounts of data on its citizens, we are the most surveyed populous in history (ibid., 16).
This recent Guardian article on loyalty reward cards inspired me to dust off some thoughts on surveillance technologies particularly the US government Total Information Awareness Program, which was killed by Congress in 2002 (Dead but not exactly buried, if you know what I mean).
Personally I do not think the surveillance society is altogether a bad thing, but that is a much more complex argument than is outlined here, and it will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, here are the thoughts…
It can be argued that 9/11 should have undermined rather than strengthened our faith in technology. For on that day the devices that should have kept us safe broke down in the most catastrophic way imaginable. However, the disillusionment that was undoubtedly felt was overwhelmed by a spirit of patriotism, and people's faith in technology quickly reasserted itself. Specifically in what David Lyon called the "guaranteed security myth," where populations feel they can and should be totally protected by technical and military means (Lyon: 2003,46). In terms of the guaranteed security myth, the 9/11 disaster can be seen as a failure of the democratic system not of technology. It came about because the rights of the individual were prioritised above the safety of the society as a whole. This is the failure that the PATRIOT Act and new surveillance technologies aimed to correct.
The Total Information Awareness program or TIA, that was being developed under the auspices of the Pentagon. The aim of TIA was to identify potential terrorists before they strike. In a process known as data mining, vast amounts of data would be searched for patterns that might indicate terrorist activity (CNN, www). To get an idea of how much data could be searched; it was envisioned that the software could analyse "multiple petabytes." One petabyte is so vast that it can hold forty pages of text for every one of the six billion people on Earth (CNN 1, www).
With TIA technology, the government would be able to compile so much information on a person that it could reconstruct her daily life instantaneously. This bares an uncanny resemblance to William Bogard's theory of dataveillance. There would be no need for a detective to trail a suspect, or for CCTV cameras to film them, because the data would simulate their every movement and construct their life in advance of them living it. The government would no longer need to identify potential suspects either, because with total information awareness; everyone would be a suspect.
Defence Under-secretary Pete Aldridge gave the government's view of TIA as a choice that had to be made between liberty and personal safety: "We are in a war on terrorism… we are trying to give our people a sufficient set of tools to track down the terrorists" (CNN, www). In the light of the claims of total information awareness, "sufficient tools" sounds like a remarkable understatement. But critics of the program asked how much freedom Americans must give up in the pursuit of potential terrorists? One of TIA's own researchers admitted that a high number of "false positives" could result from such techniques. A false positive, in this case, means being labelled wrongly as a terrorist, and thanks to the PATRIOT Act, this potentially could result in imprisonment without trial.
One of the effects of 9/11 has been to re-establish the dependency populations feel on their governments to protect them. It is not that society has become fairer, but citizens have become more aware of their dependency on governments. Arguably that dependency has been exploited since the 9/11 attacks and a climate of fear defines much of the political discourse. Ironically in the U.S. it has been staged as a fight for freedom versus tyranny, when in fact many individual freedoms have been taken away.
Bogard, William, The Simulation of Surveillance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996
CNN, Military intelligence system draws controversy, URL = http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/11/20/terror.tracking [accessed 10/1/05]
CNN 1, Anti-terror record mining research continues, URL = www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/02/23/terror.privacy.ap [accessed 11/1/05]
Giddens, Anthony, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1991
Lithwick, Dahlia and Julia Turner (2003) A Guide to the Patriot Act, URL = http://slate.msn.com/id/2087984/ [accessed 5/1/05]
Lyon, David, Surveillance After September 11, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003