Surveilling organisations, organising surveillance. Organisations, observers and the observed.


Lynsey Dubbeld (Netherlands)


Privacy protections – in particular since the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the concomitant data protection legislation – have been aimed at regulating the relations between individuals and organisations: new legislative safeguards for the individual’s control over information possessed by large organisations have been considered necessary in view of the increasing power of organisations and businesses over citizens. The growing influence of organisations on individuals’ lives is not only evident in the massive processing of personal data in the commercial sector, but also – as this paper will argue – in private companies’ use of Closed-Circuit TeleVision (CCTV) to observe large portions of the population. In exploring this issue, the author will introduce examples taken from her field study on a centralised system of CCTV in train stations in the Netherlands.

With the widespread perception of ICTs enabling the extension of organisations’ control and influence over individuals, the potential invasions of citizens’ and consumers’ privacy appear to have increased considerably (cf. Johnson, 2001). In the case of camera surveillance in the public and semi-public domains, business enterprises – in particular as a result of public financing opportunities and through the formation of public-private partnerships – possess ample capacities to construct asymmetries of power.

Material definitions of surveillance
Firstly, either by producing and installing camera equipment, or through implementing, owning, and financing CCTV schemes, business enterprises increasingly define the preconditions for camera-enabled surveillance in public areas.

Discursive shaping of surveillance

Secondly, the execution of targeted surveillance is discursively shaped through the organisational contexts in which categories of ‘suspicious’ (or in any other way undesirable or ‘other’) persons are identified and defined. These categories – which are strongly reminiscent of the typologies dominating discourses of crime prevention and which are also discernible in, for instance, contemporary criminal justice systems – are developed by private sector management closely collaborating with other ‘primary definers’ (such as police, local government, and security companies) and are subsequently translated into instructions for monitoring personnel observing and interpreting the camera images (cf. Coleman & Sim, 2000; Norris & Armstrong, 1999).

Although the organisational setting is thus of crucial importance for the actual application of camera systems and observation methods, and the private sector appears to decisively influence, or even determine, the surveillance capacities of CCTV (with the subsequent effects on the privacy protections of those using the public domain), the surveilled population does not stand entirely powerless towards the corporately organised surveillance (cf. Haggerty & Ericson, 2000).

Monitoring CCTV

Firstly, increasingly, laws regulating the application of camera surveillance and legislative safeguards for the protection of individuals’ privacy exist, ranging from data protection legislation to laws prohibiting the use of covert surveillance. Individuals as well as civil rights organisations can challenge and fight the legitimacy and presence of camera systems on the basis of these laws – and in fact, sometimes successfully do so (as is shown by actions taken by organisations like ACLU, BCCLA, and Privacy International).

Watching out

Secondly, in spite of the rules of behaviour laid down by the management in official regulations, the operators actually monitoring the cameras – and acting upon the incidents thus observed – in practice possess considerable latitude in observing particular persons and groups. And although the categories of ‘suspects’ defined by the company frequently recur in the rules of operation used by camera personnel – with black people, drug users, and the homeless being particularly targeted (cf. Norris & Armstrong, 1999) – there appear to be many exceptions to these general principles as well (women, people wearing uniforms, exhibitionists), whereas the targeted populations are often being observed only briefly, with no subsequent deployment being called in. As a result of this (and the technical limitations of camera technology and the peripherals of CCTV systems), the observed are not subjected to a continuous, intense panoptic gaze structured by corporate goals, but rather become one of the many points of passage in a refractory network of supervision.

Looking back

Thirdly, individuals can take affirmative actions to fight against the privacy intrusive and classificatory tendencies inherent in visual surveillance, not only by appealing to the law, but also by mobilising the media in order to critically examine surveillance systems and intervene in the hegemonic discourse in which classifications are being defined and CCTV is being (either literally or symbolically) sold. What’s more, ‘the flattening effects of the official capital-intensive video gaze in urban spaces’, as David Lyon has put it (Lyon, 2001: 62) can be challenged: through reversing the gaze, and scrutinizing the observers by privately-owned domestic camera systems (Haggerty & Ericson, 2000); by making fun of the camera’s presence by using it as a instrument of personal amusement (Norris & Armstrong, 1999), as exhibitionists or groups like the Surveillance Camera Players do; or simply through destruction or sabotage of CCTV systems.


As Pris Regan has shown in her study of US privacy policies and legislation (Regan, 1995), primary definers from the private industry involved in the production of new technologies can considerably influence the development of safeguards for citizen’s privacy. This paper focuses on the role of commercial enterprises in the practical operation of such technologies, showing that through the material and discursive framing of CCTV, business organisations mediate the interactions between observers and the observed, with asymmetries of power and hierarchies of agency being continually negotiated, disputed and challenged – an analysis which could prove to be useful not only for advocacy groups aiming objecting to surveillance activities, but also for new understandings of concepts like surveillance, power and privacy (cf. Lyon, 2001).


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Haggerty, Kevin D. and Ericson, Richard V. (2000) ‘The Surveillant Assemblage’ in: British Journal of Sociology 51 (4), 605-622.

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