Research Essay: by Sowande Roberts

A Culture of Surveillance

       The scene is North America of the early 21st Century. A dynamic culture that has evolved through time and space over ten thousand years from the earliest peoples who have walked the plains of the hot and frigid desert landscapes of the centre of the continent to the woodlands and boreal forests of the northern latitudes. With the advent of European culture six hundred years ago, an intricate compilation of traditions were introduced, and simultaneously the existing cultures co-mingled with new influences to create new variations of culture. As in any social fabric, there are obvious and subtle political structures that allow society to function. Depending on your theoretical lens, one can evaluate these political structures founded upon the ideologies of Durkheim, Marx, Levi-Strauss, or one can amalgamate various ideas, and read the likes of Eric Wolf, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and others to try to make sense of today’s modern social/political structures.

       The nature of Western society today demonstrates the interconnectedness of peoples from all over the world. The development of communication networks, data storage, and digital technology emphasizes humankind’s need to order, sequentialize, and organize every entity, natural or artificial, biological or non-biological, massive or minute, relevant or irrelevant into categories, classes, or more profoundly into bits and bytes of data. Given our need to be more connected to each other, it is fair say that the technological innovations of the last 150 years such as locomotion, automobiles, airplanes, electricity, radio, television, electronic computing, mainframes, telephony are microcosms of our voracious appetite on the march to technological nirvana.

      The topic of this essay is the idea of surveillance in society. Surveillance can have various meanings, applications and social/political subtleties. For example, in Canada or in the USA, a person’s day can be observed, tracked and recorded in multiple ways i.e. Mr. Jones wakes up at 8:00am, has a shower, eats breakfast, and leaves home to go to work. On his drive to work there is a police car with police officers on a side street monitoring the car speeds of motorists making certain that these early morning commuters are observing correctly the traffic laws. Anyway, after Mr. Jones has been at work for several hours and at 12:00pm, he decides it is time for lunch. He has no money in his pocket, so he walks to the nearest ATM machine to take out some money and then buys lunch at a nearby diner. While requesting $20.00 from the bank machine, the bank’s mainframe surreptitiously collects information about Mr. Jones such as time and date of transaction, location of the ATM, how much money is being requested, and if the bank considers its self a customer orientated organization, surely it is creating if not already building upon a customer profile of Mr. Jones’ banking habits.

       It is now the end of the day, and Mr. Jones wants to watch a movie at the theater with a lady friend. He quickly calls her on his mobile phone to firm up the evening’s details. Here again, Mr. Jones’ wireless phone company is collecting pertinent information such as time of day of the call in order to process correct billing, location of the call in order to determine possible long distance charges, and in some jurisdictions, fourth party call monitoring is permissible; for example, government intrusion of phone calls can be an acknowledged means to increase national security. In a nut shell, if one is hard pressed to outline the on goings of Mr. Jones' day, it is possible since the technological apparatus in the background has made it a reality.

      Privacy and the notion of solace with one’s family and friends seem to be a distance memory. The ability of the state, transnational organizations or quasi-grassroots organizations to intrude, more or less silently into our personal affairs is endemic. The interesting part of this phenomenon is that society seemly does not care that much about privacy. Perhaps, in some cases, there is the preference to put on the blinders, and accept without fuss that this tide of personal intrusion cannot be stopped. Thus, if you cannot beat them, you might as well join them type of mentally persists. On the other hand, the reality of the dangers of 21st century such as terrorism and violent crime makes it easier for the social body to except stringent measures to protect ourselves. The question that this essay asks is about the evolution of privacy infringements. The discussion will be about three scenarios that exist today. There will be a discussion on credit card fraud, and the implications it has with every day credit card users. Secondly, a discussion about neighbourhood watches, and how they may increase the safety of our streets. Finally, a brief overview of online social networks will take place, and how they permeate society seamlessly with potentially negative effects.

      This exercise can be seen as an anthropological undertaking since a comparative analysis will take place. This paper acknowledges that this analysis may be in part a sociological exercise since some of the concepts that will be used are derived from the field of sociology which may have some implications that are seen through social programs used to modify the group behavior of various individuals i.e. criminals, consumers, and youth. Evolution plays an important role in nature and society. Whether evolution is seen as step by step progression of events or an organic manifestation, it provides insights to the structural background that permeates social/cultural phenomena. For example, the explosion of online social networks in the early 21st century can be seen as a culmination of various events such as the development of computer devices that hold and process large amounts of data, the popularity of email as a means of communication over the last few decades, human nature’s longstanding need to be connected with one another, and from a darker perspective, our voyeuristic appetites may have no limits, and more significantly the relative easy accessibility that individuals have to connect with these social networks produces a social/cultural momentum that literally cannot be stopped. Thus, the evolution of what we call social networks today can potentially be something completely different tomorrow. Yet, the underlying themes that exist now such as communication, connectedness, and surveillance will likely not change in the future.

      Today, credit card fraud and computer hacking are considered serious crimes. These kinds of activities are on the rise. And, at face value these crimes are seen as methods for criminals to make easy money or to disrupt day to day electronic commerce. However, underlying these nefarious activities are direct intrusions on privacy of regular citizens who entrust aspects of their daily lives to corporations or government agencies who store personal information about individuals on large electronic databases (Macionis and Gerber 2011: 166). Jane Crossley (2009: 26) points out that in 2008 that Card Not Present (CNP) transactions accounted for 54% of all credit card fraud losses. In monetary terms, 328.4 millions pounds sterling in credit card losses occurred in Britain in a past recent year. Thus, with a continued push for electronic commerce by retailers, online shopping will continue to grow (Crossley 2009:26).

      Conversely, an increase in online credit card fraud can be seen as an increased surveillance of individuals by credit card fraudsters and computer hackers. Granted not all computer hackers are thieves of money, per se, but the intrusion of private information can be considered an undue surveillance of an individual’s privacy. Certainly, modern databases have firewalls, encryption mechanisms, and so forth to protect private information, yet computer hackers are able to access data in ways that seem abstract and non-discernable, but ultimately this data can be made coherent in its proper context (Wark 2004: [002]). And this is no surprise since credit card companies such as Visa have developed technology that analyzes fraud across its transaction processing network (Marlin 2005: 32). It is said that credit card companies spend a lot of their time resolving fraud after the crime has occurred as opposed to preventing the crime in the first place (Marlin 2005: 32). By implication, it might be less expensive for card issuers to prevent credit card fraud instead of dealing with its after affects. According to the Canadian Bankers Association, in 2010, Card Not Present transactions such as e-commerce, telephone, and mail purchases which were vulnerable to fraudulent activities had amounted to CAD $176, 115, 080 in losses (Canadian Bankers Association: 2011). Clearly with these kinds of monetary amounts at stake, it is safe to say that an increased surveillance by credit card issuers to curtail fraudulent behavior will be a counter punch to the increased surveillance by criminals and computer hackers whose goal is to defraud encrypted data for financial gain.

      Our next topic of discussion relates to neighbourhood surveillance. Perhaps, this topic is not at the forefront of the public agenda, but it does have high relevance in today’s society. One cannot go without a week where public officials espouse the virtues of being tough on crime or the important need for safe streets and neighbourhoods (Mallea 2010: 9-12). However, what has been becoming more and more evident is that safe streets and neighbourhoods comes at a price, and seemingly governments, municipal or otherwise have limited cash resources to pay for police officers and social programs to curb crime (Preprost 2011: 5). Michel Foucault (1977: 173-175) a distinguished post modern thinker of his day recognized the importance of governmental surveillance of citizens in various social settings such as in prisons, military organizations, the judiciary and so forth. Foucault (1977: 171-172) presents valid concepts of controlling people’s coming and goings by complete omnipresent surveillance by government officials. In this way, the ruling hierarchal elite can keep tabs on everybody else. But in today’s Western society, it may be fair to say that governments are more cautious about governmental policies when they are closely related to fiscal awareness and responsibility. Having entered an era where fiscal responsibility is a good thing, it then leads to the next obvious question, and that is if government agencies such as police forces are playing a lesser role in general neighbourhood safety, then who is left to guard the cookie jar? Well clearly it is the regular citizenry who are handed the task of self policing. Thus, it is not surprising to see grassroots organizations such as Neighbourhood Watch and Citizens on Patrol thriving in various jurisdictions in Canada (Preprost 2011:1-2). Therefore, if there is a suspected thief in the neighbourhood then neighbours can be alerted to the potential risk of their houses being broken into. And perhaps on an expanded level, a neighbourhood could keep an eye on a potential thief by means of foot and/or car patrol. For example, in the West End of Winnipeg, there is an organization called Citizens on Patrol Program (COPP) which does foot patrols in the neighbourhood of Gilbert Park (Nor’West News 2010: 5). Anecdotal results suggest that there is a decrease in at risk activities among youth as well as more neighbours openly communicating about neighbourhood issues (Nor’West News 2010: 5).

Fig. 1. A public sign on a street corner in Winnipeg, Manitoba that lets potential criminals know that they are being watched.

Also, other and differing community groups interested in safer neigbourhoods may use surveillance by car to keep tabs on potential law breakers. Community members can use various methods to raise awareness to thieves that there are being observed at all times. For example, by driving a blue car with a bent up car hood, a concerned citizen can bring attention to a thief that he is being watched, so if the thief sees this blue car in one part of town on two separate instances in a span of 15 minutes, and then if the thief once again sees this same blue car for a third time within the same day in the thief’s neighbourhood about a half and hour later, then the thief knows that he is being watched by community members. Another potential neighbourhood tactic includes this example: by using a car from the 1970’s or 1980’s i.e. an old beater and removing its muffler and using tinted windows, one can use this car as part of a neighbourhood surveillance program. For example, if our thief is walking his dog in the park, and if there is a concerned neighbour who wants to keep an eye on the thief, this neighbour could drive around the park several times in the old beater making a ruckus. Other park patrons may think nothing of the noise, but the thief who is on guard for suspicious behaviour knows that he is being watched. Clearly, grassroots organizations have evolved such that tighter neighbourhood surveillance by each and every member in a community can make everyone accountable to the ravages of crime, whether if one is on the right side or the wrong side of the law.

       As we continue this analysis of surveillance, let’s discuss the phenomenon of internet social networks. Seemingly, the mushrooming growth of these social networks is harmless since they allow users who are friends or acquaintances to stay in touch. This is a good communication tool for people who can talk to each other at a relatively low cost. Yet, the structural realities of these internet social groups allows for a close observation of people’s affairs of friends and strangers alike. Of course, social network users have the ability to allow or disallow access to other users into their personal social networks. This, no doubt, gives users the power to filter who is and is not allowed to be in the inner circle of one’s social network.

       It is human nature to be curious about other people affairs, and perhaps it is natural for human beings to be exhibitionists. Before the internet age, we were aware of the classic nosey neighbour who would look over the back garden fence to observe a close and intimate conversation that a couple might be having. The fact that these social networks allows for users to indicate a status update such as ‘I am having lunch or ‘I am in class’ provides an ideal of how Western culture may view the notion of privacy and perhaps in some cases the lack thereof.

      However, clearly there is a darker side to these social networks, and this relates to unwanted observers. Whether these observers are potential advertisers or voyeurs, if determined and focused can surveille, collect information, or redistribute user preferences to other third parties.

       In 2008, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart said that Facebook has conceded with some complaints relating to how the social network service stored and shared personal information such as how other applications associated with Facebook shares personal information. Also, another example of potential privacy infringements is a feature of Facebook which is the ‘Like’ button which gives the ability for Facebook users to vote on various products of online stores by pressing the ‘Like’ button, but apparently the use of this button may be linked to the ability of tracking users and non-users preferences for various websites without users and non-users knowing it (Sarah Schmidt 2010: A9). The Privacy Commissioner sums up her department’s responsibility by saying producing user friendly privacy controls is a critical component for everyone to control their Facebook experience (Sarah Schmidt 2010: A9).

      The preceding paragraphs have discussed the nature of surveillance in society. We have seen that privacy issues are closely related to surveillance. With credit card fraud, victims are potentially exposed to identity theft which may have financial repercussions. While with the neighbourhood surveillance scenario privacy between neighbours may be at risk. Certainly, with internet social networks, the concept of one’s privacy and solitude has been abandoned since by their very nature, the sharing of personal details is at the heart of such a medium. Therefore, the question remains is how will these types of scenarios develop through time. Will we see the evolution of credit card fraud such that credit card companies will not be able to slow down the unwanted tide of intrusion by hackers and career criminals, or with grassroots neighbourhood surveillance programs, will we see more intrusive and clandestine methods by local community organizations to strike fear in those who dare to commit crime? And will we see social networks evolve in such a way that laws enacted today to protect one’s privacy are literally obsolete the very next day. Realistically, social and cultural phenomena evolves over time, therefore we will have to wait and see.


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