Thursday, April 19, 2007

Privacy and Control: The Function of Surveillance in Society

Monahan, Torin, editor. Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life. 342p. Routledge. 2006. ISBN 978-0-415-95393-1.

The growth of information technology has brought with it a growth in our social, cultural, and political awareness. We are now accountable for our everyday lives more than ever before, as even the most unlikely individuals are subjected to ongoing monitoring and disclosure. This increased self-awareness has influence over our daily lives in ways that are not easily recognizable. In Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life, a discussion of technology's control over institutions and individuals, whether it may be law-enforcement, transportation, diplomacy, or parenting. Its collection of essays questions the limits which information technologies have created in our social networks and collective security. Our present climate of social and political deliberation and mistrust make this book a timely confrontation of surveillance methods and their effects on individual freedom and privacy. It raises questions about the ultimate costs and benefits of surveillance through several contemporary case studies. Overall, the book presents a detailed analysis of current surveillance trends and outcomes without any of today's obligatory flag-waving or defiant neoliberalism.
Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life features essays from various professionals from the fields of political science, sociology, criminology, and cultural studies. The book appeals to an audience interested in surveillance studies, criminal justice, the sociology of science and technology, and women's studies. An analysis of everyday technologies is presented, ranging from biometric technologies at airports and borders, video surveillance in schools/public housing, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in hospitals and public transport, national ID cards, and magnetic strips on welfare food cards. The motivations and functions of surveillance technologies used in everyday life are investigated by the essayists. The central issue of the book revolves around the system of tradeoffs linked to surveillance technologies, such as security versus liberty, and security versus privacy. Its authors argue that tradeoffs provide for only brief discussion of the consequences of the current growth of electronic surveillance. Its editor, law professor Torin Monahan, argues: "Some of the obvious issues not discussed when talking about trade-offs are how surveillance contributes to spatial segregation and social inequality, how private high-tech industries are benefiting from the public revenue generated for these systems, and what the ramifications are of quantifying 'security' (e.g. by the number of video cameras for political purposes)" (2). The book investigates the larger motivations and function of surveillance technologies used in everyday life.
In her essay The State Goes Home: Local Hyper vigilance of children and the Global Retreat from Social Reproduction Cindi Katz comments on the growth in child surveillance and paranoid parenting across America. This domestic dystopia reflects the larger national surveillance crisis involving banking and the government. As Katz emphasizes: "But one thing is certain: the discourse of fear has provoked an increasingly serious domestic response to the perceived dangers in our midst" (28). Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life is also a response to national security, a discussion of the right to privacy and the social aspects of technology, as well as whose interests electronic surveillance actually serves.
Although the book gathers together essays from a diverse background of professionals and researchers, all of the essays come to the conclusion that most forms of surveillance are unnecessarily invasive and overly expensive. In his essay The Growth of Mandatory Volunteerism in Collecting Personal Information- 'Hey Buddy Can You Spare a DNA?" Gary T. Marx investigates the emerging consumer trend of soft surveillance. This surveillance appears to protect and empower consumers, yet Marx argues that this facade serves only the interests of big business, as it is: "Requesting volunteers based on appeals to good citizenship or patriotism, using dangerous communication, trading personal information for rewards, or convenience and using hidden or low-visibility information-collection technologies" (38). These newly emerging forms of technology, from barcodes to biometrics, intrude on our everyday lives without recognition. As Marx continues: "New hidden or low-visibility technologies increasingly offer the tempting possibility of bypassing awareness and any need for direct consent altogether" (41). Surveillance has become an intimate player in our personal lives, determining our social, consumer, and political identities, without any invitation or acceptance on our part.
The increasing costs and supervision created by surveillance has reinforced social hierarchies, as the essayists describe the priorities and agendas of everyday lives and the balance of power created by them. The essayists conclude that many of our everyday surveillance technologies are unnecessary and, in most cases, unwarranted. The goals and objectives of electronic surveillance are too hindered by bureaucracy and capitalism to produce any benefits to society. As editor Torin Monahan writes: "Indeed, most crimes-violent or otherwise-are not prevented by surveillance" (5). Throughout the book, the current ramifications of the global "War on Terror" are investigated. Monahan considers surveillance to be an inadequate approach to terrorism and crime. He notes: "The root causes for crime or terrorism are not engaged and deeper social changes brought about by surveillance and security systems are left interrogated" (10). The essayists of the book agree that surveillance only succeeds in reinforcing social and economic divides, as the poor are often victims of surveillance of the rich, as their personal activities and economic transactions are monitored and criticized. Nancy D. Campbell comments on the phenomenon of workplace drug testing in her essay Everyday Insecurities: The Micro behavioral Politics of Intrusive Surveillance. She writes: "Drug testing in nontherapeutic contexts will remain an unfair and unjust 'new-surveillance' scheme until the day when the poor begin testing the rich" (73). The essayists conclude that surveillance fails to protect identities or prevent crime. Simon A. Cole and Henry N. Pont ell elaborate this perspective in their essay "Don't Be Low Hanging Fruit: Identity Theft as Moral Panic". They argue: "Thus, in neglecting the larger social reality of identity fraud, such narratives allow systematic problems related to such crimes remain unaddressed, which increases the likelihood that the problem will become worse and that a fearful public will support even greater surveillance in the hope of rectifying it" (146). The book concludes by saying that surveillance does succeed in cultivating fear and mistrust, though not in the surveillance itself but the people controlling our society and supposedly provide protection for us.
The book thoroughly analyzes surveillance in our everyday lives and its effect on democratic values. The government and advertising companies hold tremendous power in monitoring our everyday lives. Today, millions unknowingly surrender personal information, social status, and geographic details by simply using a credit card, boarding public transport, or using a mobile phone. The most interesting chapter of the book is Heather Cameron's Using Intelligent Systems to Track Buses and Passengers. Cameron describes London Transport's recent efforts to provide a "transport system that serves the needs of all those who live, work, or visit London, irrespective of economic status or social identity" (226). In their effort to improve customer service, London Transport has applied several technologies to ensure efficiency and security for all of its passengers and employees. It is not surprising for London to be the first city worldwide to incorporate RFID, GPS, and security cameras into its buses. After all: "With the equivalent of one camera for every fourteen people, it is estimated that the average person in a large city like London is filmed three hundred times a day" (3). However, it is surprising to learn exactly how much surveillance these technologies provide. Security cameras both onboard buses and outside of bus lanes monitor passengers and vehicles illegally driving in bus lanes. These cameras may capture the driver's license plate and the driver may then be fined by mail for their violation. Similarly, passenger behavior is captured on video. Passengers can be caught on tape applying graffiti to bus interiors or harassing bus drivers. This video may then be used to identify such criminals and aid in their prompt prosecution. Although these security measures benefit transport users, other forms of surveillance infringe on their right to privacy. By using a London Transport Oyster card, passengers save on their fares but these RFID cards in turn communicate their names, addresses, legal status (i.e. student/senior), credit card information, travel behavior, and geographical location to London Transport. This information can then be sold to advertisers and targeted commercials can be shown on video monitors strategically placed near the doors of each bus. By using RFID, London Transport creates enormous revenues, yet passenger fares continue to rise. Bus fares on London buses are nearly comparable to London Underground fees. Yet bus passengers experience little of the comfort, convenience, and dramatically decreased travel times than that of their Underground counterparts. Through her essay, Cameron emphasizes the need for passengers and government agencies to address such surveillance issues and collaborate on protecting citizen privacy. Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life presents a thoughtful and provocative discussion of the exchange of information and the role of surveillance in our social networks and personal identities.

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