Who’s Watching You? The rise of surveillance culture

4 min read

It’s received wisdom among sociologists that people are generally prepared to effectively sell their rights if what they get in return is sufficiently attractive, convenient or useful. Take social media – the fact that the companies which facilitate this have access to those expressions of your life which a generation ago would have been considered private is, it seems, of little concern if in return users of social media are given the means of sharing and communicating with friends. Likewise, we use Google because it’s a fine way to manage our dealings with the internet – we do this knowing (probably – you do know this right?) that every key stroke we put into the search engine, regardless of whether it results in a completed search or a page visited, is monitored by Google. These are ‘reasonable’ deals with the devil. But they’re also part of a creeping move towards the kind of surveillance society envisaged by dystopian sci-fi novels.

This month it was announced that police officers in the US wearing cameras made by Axon, the country’s largest body-cam supplier, will soon be able to live stream from them. That enhances officer safety, transparency and accountability, the argument goes – but it also results in another tool of surveillance for what is a governmental body. Some have suggested, rightly, that live streaming could erode community trust. Even the Justice Department has in the past argued that they posed “serious risks to public privacy”.

But do we care enough? “Please note that this conversation may be recorded for training or security purposes” is a phrase now standard in customer call centre phone menus and one the significance of which barely registers. Yet we’re entering the age of the electronic panopticon. The Panopticon was the name given to an ideal prison devised by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787. In it, every prisoner would – as an encouragement to improved behaviour – be observable without ever knowing if they were being observed. It would, as Bentham put it, create a “sense of invisible omniscience”. And, he added, more ominously: “Ideal perfection would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.”


This isn’t Big Brother-ish scare-mongering. As the Edward Snowden affair revealed, governments monitor their citizens in ways that, prior to his revelations regarding Echelon programme – which gathered phone, fax and email communications around the world for the US, UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand governments – would scarcely be believable outside of a Jason Bourne movie. As ‘The Guardian’ put it at the time, “the faceless intelligence masters may say they are still searching for needles [in a bid to combat terrorism], but first they want the entire haystack”.

The fact is that when surveillance technology is introduced, perhaps for good reason, it is never rolled back at a later date. The UK, for example, is riddled with CCTV cameras, such that – as is often cited – the average citizen moving about London will have been digitally recorded some 300 times. These surveillance cameras were first introduced in the 1970s on the premise that they would help combat the terrorism of the IRA. But they never went away post ceasefire. In fact, they mushroomed: the UK now has the highest concentration of surveillance cameras in the world.

Is there hope that the surveillance culture can be curtailed? Clearly there is a time lag between a new technology and the adjustment of the law to its use, an ever more dangerous lag given the speed with which digital and computing technology in particular improves and proliferates. Take the telephone, for example. Back in 1928, again in the US, the Supreme Court ruled that warrants were not required for police to listen in on telephone conversations because voices were transmitted outdoors – beyond the private property protected by the Fourth Amendment. That may sound ridiculous now. And perhaps in time the arguments used to allow snooping into digital communications will seem equally so. That said, it did take 39 years for the Supreme Court to reverse its decision on phones.


But perhaps, more fundamentally, more unnervingly, privacy simply no longer has within it the notion of choice – of choosing to be private, or to be public. One thinker, David Brin, has introduced the idea of what he calls ‘sousveillance’, by which he suggests that the best solution to the rise of a surveillance culture is utter transparency: not that some agencies hold some knowledge about some people (and with it a worrying element of power) but that all such knowledge of all people is available for all to see. The more we can all see, the less power can accrue to any one agency, the more the playing field between those who can afford to protect their privacy and those who cannot is leveled.

Thankfully, that still sounds like a horrendous notion to most people. Yet maybe not for long. Because the freedom not to be monitored is a freedom we are unquestionably on the road to losing, and losing thanks to the digital technology – our smart-phones, cash cards, loyalty cards, GPS – that we so revere and from which so much information about us is being gleaned. We don’t – but we must – see the potential dangers in technological creep. Or grasp that – as Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, has put it – “in the hands of an individual, the video camera can be a very empowering thing. When it’s employed by the government to watch over the citizens, it has the opposite effect”.

Next up

The End of Car Ownership

3 min read