Surveillance: Why is it Good? (Essay Post)

My earlier hypothesis, through secondary research, claimed that surveillance in UK society causes a distinct marginalising effect upon different groups, based on race, culture, economic circumstances, health, or other factors. Subsequent primary research, and additional secondary research, supports that while this opinion does exist among those groups, an important contradiction exists whereby those same groups support surveillance.

This thesis proposes, paradoxically, that while those groups oppose surveillance as a concept, they also recognise the benefits of surveillance, to society, and even in their own environment. With the purpose of creating a communication campaign to better inform these target groups of the positives, and the negatives, surrounding surveillance, this report explains how additional primary and secondary research gave rise to this thesis. Furthermore, it concludes with a description of the video and blog materials that have been created to better communicate these ideas, and how that process of creation helped to shape the conclusion of this research.

To be convinced by my claim, the readers and the viewers of the video documentary, need to know that solid research and peer-group opinions have been examined to prove this thesis. Therefore, primary research is based upon the interviews and filming during production of the video documentary, and secondary research utilises various academic papers, and sources on various related topics.

As the video interviews were a main source of primary research I decided to structure questions that would achieve a fair and balanced information gathering. I needed to understand how aggressive or negative some people might be, even about positive surveillance, because they might come from a poorly treated race group or cultural group. Equally, I needed to know if in fact, if there is no evidence of any distinction in attitude between race or cultural groups.

 

In doing this I was trying to overcome any preconceptions of what I thought different racial and cultural groups’ opinions would be, versus the facts, and to help me to communicate the lessons learned to the target audience in an appropriate way.

 

Though questions were adapted with a conversational style, this is the rough flow and content that was used in the primary research interviews:

 

  • What do you think about surveillance overall and its morality? (To find the areas where they lack knowledge of surveillance and discrimination, to understand their prejudices)

 

  • How willing are you to give up your right to privacy?

 

If FOR giving up privacy:

  • So you feel all right about a system (or sometimes another person) being able to see every transaction you’ve done, every message you’ve sent, every search on Google you’ve made?

If AGAINST giving up privacy:

  • Have you directly been affected by a discriminative judgement by an officer of the law or security?

 

If no:

  • Then why are you so against all of the surveillance methods? How has surveillance overall affected you?

 

  • Do you have any experiences of being monitored or surveyed, where it’s affected you personally?

 

  • What different forms of surveillance do you think are affecting you each day?

 

  • Sub-questions in discussion:
    • With your online activity, does surveillance make you change your behaviour?
    • Do you think the government, or businesses like Google, Sainsbury’s and Shopping centres do more surveillance?
    • How does it make you feel to know that you may be being watched?
    • What is your knowledge of ‘good’ forms of surveillance that help?

 

In the editorial Surveillance and Inequality, 2008, Torin Monahan and Jill Fisher present a compelling thesis that “social life is being transfigured by new technologies of identification, monitoring, tracking, data analysis and control”(1), and that, as per my thesis, the levels of surveillance differ greatly based on factors such as race, culture or economic background. To gather evidence they gathered research sources that “address the differential effects of surveillance upon marginalised and privileged social groups”(1). Their thesis is perfectly summed up and supported by one piece of secondary research where Pallitto and Heyman describe “the securitization of movement” having three different effects on “inequalities of rights, risk and movement”(2) according to the social group of a person.

As the weight of secondary research strongly supports this idea of prejudice and disadvantage for these groups, it was necessary for me to ask open questions during individual interviews. The purpose was to allow interviewees to express opinions without any undue influence from me, that would have been based on a paradigm that I’d formed through secondary research.

In interviews as part of my primary research, I initially aimed to prove the views expressed by Monahan and Fisher, and other sources. I was successful in confirming that viewpoint, including a statement from a public servant that confirmed their unofficial policy to target searches of individuals based on profiling of certain society groups. Naturally that officer asked not to be identified, so while this appears in my report, it will not be in the video. However, in all nine interviews conducted in primary research and inserted into the video, the interviewees both cautioned against surveillance, yet also supported the benefits of surveillance, provided that the purpose of surveillance was righteous.

This led me to consider why those groups that are most at risk of being disadvantaged through surveillance would then view it in a positive light.

Lev Manovich in his paper entitled Software Culture, he argues that software is “cultural in a sense that it is directly used by hundreds of millions of people and that it carries ‘atoms’ of culture (media and information, as well as human interactions around these media and information) – [mobile apps] is only the visible part of a much larger software universe”(3). In his paper, Manovich provides a compelling story of how society has willingly embraced software that has a largely surveillance-oriented purpose, mainly because this “cultural software” is a “concept and anthropological reality, in which we are, without totally realising it”(4). It is logical therefore, to accept that marginalised social groups might indeed embrace the tools of surveillance simply because they have become a cultural norm, with advantages that are more beneficial in the short term than the long-term damages of surveillance might become.

In primary research video interviews, where the interviewees were against surveillance, I challenged the interviewee whether they had directly been affected by any of the various things that could negatively affect them from surveillance. Reliably the answers were, that although they might be frustrated by the risk of surveillance, they did recognise its value and importance, all with exception of one who flatly refused to discuss this.

Claudia Aradau writes in her paper ‘The Signature of Security, big data, anticipation, surveillance’(5), that intelligence analysis of data from surveillance is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and that intelligence agencies need to use social profiling and other techniques to help them predict where those valuable needles might be hidden. In other words, according to her sources, which included GCHQ, it is nearly impossible to gain valuable insight from surveillance data without targeting specific society groups. If this is true, as I must accept it is, then social profiling in surveillance is a necessary tool for security to be effective.

However, people within marginalised groups, and in privileged groups, all show acceptance of this factor, because they value security higher than the risk of their privacy being abused. To understand this better, I asked the question “how does it make you feel to know that you might be being watched” and reliably the interviewees were surprisingly accepting of surveillance.

Stop-watch.org reports that ‘stop and search laws’ affected black and mixed ethnic groups 4 times more frequently than white people during 2015-2016 in the Thames Valley area, which is an increase compared to the rate being 3 times that of white ethnic groups a year earlier.(6) This tells us that across society there appears to be a tendency towards profiling and targeting groups based on their racial or cultural background. If this is the case in simple stop and search by police, then we can only assume it is the same or even potentially worse, when it comes to the effects of surveillance.

In primary research interviews, 4 of the 9 interviewees were from non-white ethnic backgrounds. Their opinions typically showed that their social and ethnic groups did perceive additional surveillance, and a tendency for excessive stop and search due to profiling, but in most cases the interviewees supported surveillance measures, because of the positive effects of surveillance on crimes rates in their community. One interviewee confided that surveillance had played a key role in discouraging him from repeating criminal offences, so while irritated by surveillance he recognised its effectiveness.

The next thing a reader, or viewer of the video documentary, will need to know is that strong or compelling counter-arguments have been tested against my thesis, and can be countered by my thesis. Academic and other information sources have been viewed to understand whether the thesis can be disproven.

The most significant counter-arguments come from two sources of opinion. The first is evidence of communities forming antagonistic relationships with authority figures and the police, because they perceive their freedom and rights are being reduced, which will further marginalise them in society. The second is a serious long-term consideration that marginalised parts of society will be victimised by a system that uses surveillance against them, which will add to their marginalisation and that will prevent social mobility.

The first of these counter-arguments is made clear by Stephen Vertigans in his paper entitled ‘British Muslims and the UK government’s ‘war on terror’ within: evidence of a clash of civilizations or emergent de-civilizing processes?’. Vertigans describes that “counterterrorism strategies are contributing to a self-fulfilling spiral of hatred”(7) and so we are led to believe that the action of surveillance and policing creates more intense conflict between community and the state.

Primary research interviews contradict this view though, and support the idea that members of a community value peace and security higher than their worries about surveillance. Where concerns do exist, these cannot be solved by stopping surveillance, simply because the community values the benefits to greatly. Therefore community consultation is a vital step to ensure that those communities understand and can influence the uses of surveillance in their environment. Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter has launched a public consultation process to achieve exactly this. The core argument proposed in my thesis still hold true.

Massimo Ragnedda best articulates my second counter-argument, where he refers to the “new electronic cage”, whereby a government disciplines and educates a population, and exerts social control, by pushing an individual to “adapt themselves to the expectations of a group”(8). Ragnedda says public and private surveillance, and use of the media; exert an unfair influence over individuals in society. Ragnedda refers to the work of Gordon (1987), De Landa (1991) and Gill (1995) and uses the concept of Panopticon and how it relates to modern surveillance. Ragnedda points towards people (society) assuming they are being observed through pervasive surveillance, and these assumptions about surveillance cause changes to behaviour across society.(8)

However, my thesis is supported by Ragnedda himself, when he argues that the surveillance itself is neither good nor bad; as long as government doesn’t use consumerism to manipulate the masses. Ragnedda points out that there is the need for surveillance by the state to identify people that are or are not permitted to travel or to use state services (e.g. passports and ID)(8). In this sense, surveillance can still be viewed as a positive when weighing up the benefits of control versus the low perceived risk of abuse.

In conclusion, forming this thesis, and conducting this project and interviews for the video documentary and blog, I have greatly improved my understanding of surveillance and how it affects people of different society groups. The conclusion of this process has shown that those groups who are thought of as being marginalised members of society, in fact are generally supportive of surveillance, and accepting of where the risks of surveillance can be outweighed by the benefits in terms of lifestyle and security.

 

Bibliography

 

  1. Monahan, T. and Fisher, J. (2008). Surveillance & Society 5(3): Surveillance and Inequality: Page 217. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/articles5(3)/editorial.pdf. [Accessed 02 March 2017].

 

  1. Monahan, T. and Fisher, J. (2008). Surveillance & Society 5(3): Surveillance and Inequality: Page 223. (Reference to Pallitto, R. and Heyman, J.) [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/articles5(3)/editorial.pdf. [Accessed 02 March 2017].

 

  1. Manovich, L. (2011). Cultural Software: Software, or the Engine of Contemporary Societies: Page 1. [ONLINE] Available at: http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/070-cultural-software/67-article-2011.pdf. [Accessed 05 March 2017].

 

  1. Manovich, L. (2010). Software Culture [ONLINE] Retrieved from an abstract on http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/software-culture. [Accessed 05 March 2017].

 

  1. Aradau, C. (2015). Radical Philosophy 191: The Signature of Security: Big Data, Anticipation and Surveillance. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/the-signature-of-security#ref-2-a. [Accessed 10 March 2017].

 

  1. Stop Watch (updated: 2017). Thames Valley Stop and Search Results. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.stop-watch.org/your-area/area/thames-valley. [Accessed 12 March 2017].

 

  1. Vertigans, S. (2010). British Muslims and the UK government’s ‘war on terror’ within: evidence of a clash of civilizations or emergent de-civilizing processes?. The British Journal of Sociology, 61: Abstract. [ONLINE] Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2009.01300.x/full. [Accessed 14 March 2017].

 

  1. Ragnedda, M. (2011). International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, 3 (6): Social control and Surveillance in the Society of Consumers: Page 180-182. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/11959/1/Regnedda.pdf [Accessed 14 March 2017].
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