Technologies of Surveillance: Evolution and Future Impact

Vance Lockton and Richard Rosenberg


Surveillance means, literally, ‘to watch from above.’ Modern surveillance technologies allow exactly that to occur. From surveillance cameras on public streets, to GPS-enabled vehicles, to recorded electronic transactions, our lives are becoming increasingly observed from on high. Some see great promise in this practice; in theory, surveillance makes us safer. After all, if every inch of the globe was viewed, recorded and indexed, virtually no deviance from social norms (such as criminal activity) would go undetected. Ironically though, detractors of ubiquitous surveillance would make the exact same statement, noting that social progress demands deviance from accepted norms. In describing the growth of surveillance technology, this paper will examine both the benefits (i.e., increased safety) and detriments (decreased freedom) that result from the presence of these technologies within our society.

For many people, the first technology that is associated with electronic surveillance is closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. This association is not surprising; for instance, the United Kingdom operates a network of electronic eyes which numbers over 4.2 million; about 1 for every 14 citizens. It was estimated that on an average day in 1999, a person operating in an urban centre would have their image captured by at least 300 camerasi. China may not be far behind with their Golden Shield project; Shanghai has announced that it will be placing over 200 000 cameras citywide by 2010ii. The UK system was introduced to combat IRA bombings; China envisions a means of reducing police reaction times to demonstrations.iii It can safely be assumed, though, that these will not be the only uses of these networks (in fact, CCTV in the UK is already a general purpose crime fighting tool). Will anti-government protesters be identified, and perhaps silenced or punished? More disturbingly, will all people with an unusual appearance or of certain ethnicities be singled out for greater scrutiny? The likelihood of these scenarios and others will be discussed in this paper.

The public’s reaction to surveillance cameras varies depending on the question. When Americans were asked in 2003 about the expansion of public camera surveillance to help deal with those suspected of terrorism, 62% of respondents were in favouri. However, the same survey found that 91.2% of respondents rated ‘not having someone watch you or listen to you without your permission’ as being important. These numbers illustrate a very important point about the public perception of surveillance: by avoiding the mention of the specific freedoms which may be lost, support can be garnered for the sacrificing of civil liberties in the name of public safety. This paper will further examine this effect, and the dangerous ramifications of it.

Standard CCTV cameras are of course not all of the surveillance industry. This paper will describe the rise of many other technologies which can be used to watch the public, including: facial recognition, which is incorporated into the CCTV systems of many cities, including Tampa, Florida and Prague; the use of ‘intelligent’ computers to monitor CCTV feeds for ‘suspicious’ behaviours, such as is the case in Chicago; Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), which will soon be added to passports, and may eventually find its way into all consumer goods; and Global Positioning System (GPS) units, which by law must be added to cellular phones, and which a New York judge recently declared police did not need a court order to use to track a suspect’s vehicle.

The amount of physical surveillance that takes place is troubling enough, but it becomes frightening when combined with the phenomenon of data mining. The idea behind data mining is that if enough information is gathered, patterns can be extracted which would predict anything from shopping patterns to terrorist activity. To this end, governments and corporations have begun to combine the myriad of databases in existence in order to develop a detailed picture of the lives of individuals. For instance, the US’s now-defunct Total Information Awareness (TIA) project would have contained “financial, medical, travel, ‘place/event entry,’ transportation, housing and communication”i records for many millions of Americans. Information gathering has become a multi-billion dollar industry, patronized by police departments, corporations and government agencies. These organizations believe in the power of information; thus, would it be at all surprising if data gathered by physical surveillance (when a person is recognized by an RFID reader, or a CCTV camera with facial recognition) were added to the dossiers of individuals? This paper will examine the effects of data mining on surveillance, as well as the dangers to the liberties of citizens caused by the existence of these detailed profiles of their lives.

In order to examine the future of surveillance, attention must be paid to its past. To this end, the work of David Lyon on the rise of the surveillance society will be examined, as well as the social and institutional contexts within which major surveillance revolutions have occurred. By showing parallels to the society created by the events of 9/11, an attempt will be made to infer possible future scenarios for surveillance levels in America.

Finally, throughout this paper the trade-offs of surveillance will be examined. The benefits are frequently stated: surveillance increases safety. However, the detriments are sometimes unclear. Are the objections to this technology simply due to lack of comfort and the Orwellian scenarios shouted by many activists? This paper will argue that in fact ubiquitous surveillance is a threat to the freedoms of movement and speech, two of the foundations of a free society. An uncomfortable public is seeing the structure of a surveillance society being built around them; this is a situation which must be stopped.


Norris, McCahill & Wood, eds. Surveillance and Society. 2 (2/3): 110-135. 2004.


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