Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Implications of surveillance on urban life

**Note: I share this essay here as an extension to the presentation I did earlier, as well as using it as the background research information for my final project. This is not the final project itself.

- written by Monica Law

Surveillance has penetrated every part of our city life. It is so common that we no longer pay attention to the ubiquitous signs of “24Hrs CCTV”, or even worse that we are not aware of the frequency of our personal data being collected in our everyday life. Although surveillance seems to be invisible to a majority of the civilians, ironically we become much more traceable and visible through the surveillance structure. When we are hoping to use the technology to improve the safety and security of our public life, we also give ways to the people in power to exercise control and plan for order. Then it is the constant flow of information regarding where we carry out our daily activities assist business corporations in generating more profits. In the end, the information that is collected from different sources is assembled together into a partial profile of each individual that enable systematic categorization and social classification. From the surveillance system point of view, we are defined by the data image drawn from the assemblage of recorded behaviours, rather than by the embodied persons.

Therefore I am interested in looking at the implications of surveillance on our city life from three different aspects: surveillance as social control; surveillance as social sorting; and using surveillance technology to codify bodies as data. At the end, I will look at the various forms of resistance towards surveillance and hopefully we can develop a sense of direction that can help us to deal with its influence on our urban life.

Surveillance as social control

Surveillance is not new to the 20th or 21st century. The idea of surveillance has been around since the ancient time, though in a closed knitted community like those back in the old days, surveillance basically equals to “watching over each other” to monitor people’s life progress or simply a way to show care. However in the modern society, surveillance becomes a structure for exercising power and control. Michel Foucault’s influential concept of “panopticism” states that the permanent visibility enabled by a structure liked the “panopticon” (the concept of a circular prison building with each prison cell visible and facing the central tower where guard is sitting) would “induce in an inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automated functioning of power”1. Therefore people knowing that they may be monitored at any time should act according to the rules or norms, making themselves their own surveillance. This concept illustrates the idea of a disciplinary society, which is “related to a unique historical context; specifically to the requirements of industrial capitalism which sought to instill in the labouring classes a distinctive temporal and bodily discipline which meshed with the routines to the emergent factory system.”2(Haggerty 2006: 27) However with the rapid advancement of technology that enhances the growth of global capitalistic system, Foucault’s model is considered to be too limited and hence the idea of “disciplinary society” is replaced by the “society of control”, introduced by philosopher Gilles Deleuze. He views surveillance as a “fundamental to a new order of global capitalism” (Ericson and Haggerty 2006: 4) , though it does not reduce surveillance to simply the collusion of economic and political power, it emphasizes that surveillance serves the goal and agendas of various institution, government, military conquest, scientific progress and risk management.

In the society of control, the control mechanisms operate in both visible and invisible ways. From the perspective of surveillance, the positive aspect of having visible control mechanism is to maintain safety, security and social order. However with the technology allowing easy viewing, checking, storing and comparing of personal visual images as well as other forms of personal data, it is the question of the accessibility to this information that we need to concern.

The control mechanism that operates invisibly in fact can be more problematic. Most of the general public do not know who has the access to what type of personal information and how information is linked from database to database. The concept of “surveillant assemblage” states that "no single Orwellian Big Brother oversees this massive monitory effort. ... Part of the power of surveillance derives from the ability of institutional actors to integrate, combine, and coordinate various systems and components. Hence, while powerful institutions do not control the entire spectrum of surveillance, they are nonetheless relatively hegemonic in the surveillant assemblage to the extent that they can harness the surveillance efforts of otherwise disparate technologies and organizations.” ( Ericson and Haggerty 2006: 4-5). Back in 2002 to 2006, the case of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar raised public attention and question to how individual confidential information is collected, analyzed and stored by the government intelligence agencies. It is not unreasonable to worry that the same story may happen to anybody. Under the name of national security, information is completely isolated to the access by government officials only. On one hand information seems to be protected, but it also means that there is no way to verify its accuracy and it requires much effort to prove innocence if information is mistakenly being linked to any criminal act.

Surveillance and social sorting

Living in a city today means that “we experience surveillance in ways that are multifaceted, multi-layered, and moment by moment” (Lyon 2004: 299). Other than surveillance cameras, our activities and public behaviours are constantly being surveyed by cell phone, bank machine, barcode door key, internet, credit cards, store loyalty card, etc. However most of the surveillance devices are not dedicated to security, much of the data collected from these means are analyzed and stored for advertising and marketing purpose. Management in corporations rely on these information to create plans and strategies for their business. However when they intend to create top notch services to the loyal customers, they are at the same time dismissing consumers who do not fit their target profile.

According to David Lyon, sociology professor of Queen’s University, “consider surveillance as social sorting is to focus on the social and economic categories and the computer codes by which personal data is organized with a view to influencing and managing people and populations” (Lyon 2003: 2). As in the Maher Arar case and many other similar cases, their “Arab” or “Muslim” backgrounds are profiled in the highly secure areas, liked national borders and airports, that these information trigger the alert system established by the governing body and such categories carry significant consequences.

The fact is surveillance regardless of form (i.e. street camera, loyalty card in a supermarket, credit card usage, etc) captures information which is stored in remote searchable databases. The collected personal data can be sorted and matched at a distance, and is accessible by multiple parties.3 Computer algorithms enable institutions or companies to sort the data based on age, gender, race, occupation, income level, etc. The more people are categorized and classified, the greater the potential of creating the so-called digital divide, since each individual’s profile is not only shaped by their own attributes, but also characterized by the computer program based on the profiles of all other individuals within the database. The result is all profiles are “fundamentally relational, or comparative, rather than individual identities”4 (Gandy 2006: 370). In this case, “individuals are placed at risk of discrimination by virtue of their membership in groups, rather than specifically on the basis of their individual identities” (Gandy 2006: 370). It is especially problematic that individuals most likely are not aware of what type of groups their profiles are assigned to, and the potential risk of discrimination is hardly scrutinized by the public.

The growth of surveillance as social sorting may credit towards the improvement in technology, but it is rather the result of fear and perception of risk that drives the desire to enhance the management of the populations. The increase of surveillance cameras of the post-911 US is an example of the result from fear of terrorism or concern of national security. In the commercial world, risk can also be calculated in financial terms, and it is being individualized according to personal profile. The credit rating we have, the insurance premium we should pay and the accessibility of resources we are allowed to have are based on the individual risk profile calculated from personal data collected from the public mass. Under the concept of modernity, categorization is often encouraged as the process is deemed as rational and analytical. However with the growth of modern institutions, we are prompted to align our self-identities with the institutional identities, that the relationships signify the determination of our chances in life.

Surveillance and body tracing

In the article of “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema”, it mentions that photographic portrait was being analyzed and rationalized by Bertillon that he prescribed a series of physical traits into a standardized vocabulary, “the troubling mass and variety of the physical body so faithfully transcribed by a photograph was thus reduced and translated through a limited code - simple, unvarying, and precise”. The problem of this 19th century practice was “the photograph finds its place within a logic of analysis into paradigmatic components, which are separated from a specific singular body in order to be circulated, compared, and then combined in order to point the finger of guilt.” (Gunning: 32). In the era of digital surveillance, the same practice still exists, but with the “improvement” over the efficiency and accuracy in collecting, analyzing and storing of body information, as well as extending the surveillance from potential criminals to the general populations. One of the examples is “using biometric identification and verification systems to construct and reinforce social identities by digital registration and processing of individual physical characteristics” (Ploeg 62). Fingerprinting, DNA screening and facial recognition embedded in CCTV system are just few common devices we know of. With the development of information technology, these data are connected with other personal information on file. The significance of the body information is that they provide material to generate more information about the individuals, families and populations that facilitate further categorization of the population into various risk groups. The various analysis using the codified body information directly affect policy making and implementation, as well as the development of prevention strategies.

Similar to the problem mentioned about the 19th century’s photographic portrait practice, using surveillance networks to collect body information poses the problem of turning our physical characteristics into digital representations, that at the end they are used as part of the construction of our identities. Fingerprint, DNA or even iris scan are often be considered as the ultimate verification of identity, which implies that we “locate the body as a site of ultimate truth or authenticity about the person” (Ball 309). However the body that information is taken from only constitutes part of a person. Body data is still an abstract entity which disassociates from bodily experiences or stories that play a critical part in defining who we are, as David Lyon argues, “these body identities permit classification and assessment based on ‘samples’ but exclude the possibility of hearing the voice of the person whose body is under scrutiny, in the form of the ‘stories’ that she might tell” (Lyon 2008: 507). Therefore biometric identifications only represent fractions of a person and it mostly serves as the means to construct identities for us by others. According to Lyon, although current biometric identification system applies to everybody in the society, it is still mainly “developed for crime control (law enforcement), social assistance (welfare recipients) and border control (passport issuance) purposes. In each case, already marginalized or disadvantage persons - criminal, the poor and people of colour - are in view and the aim of these systems is to distinguish between those that should be included or excluded, trusted or not and so on ” (Lyon 2008: 505). Therefore relying only on the abstracted body data to identify those of vulnerable and marginalized groups by the people in power is subject to the risk of injustice.

Resistance to surveillance

Having recognized the impacts and the power relations within the surveillance structure, it is reasonable to have resistance emerged alongside with the increase of the penetration of surveillance in our life, as a way to reclaim the power by the powerless. The motivation of the resistance may not come from the desire to eliminate the surveillance system, but to reduce its grasp on our life. Resistance comes in all different approaches. According to Gary Marx, he summarizes the behavioral techniques to subvert personal information surveillance into eleven categories: discovery, avoidance, piggybacking, switching, distorting, blocking, masking, breaking, refusal, cooperative and counter-surveillance moves. He states that “these concepts suggest that human creativity seeking to thwart systems of surveillance is aided by logistical and economic limits on total monitoring, the vulnerability of those engaged in surveillance to be compromised, and the interpretive and contextual nature of many human situations” (Marx: 373). These methods may require the practitioners to have certain knowledge about the operation of surveillance system. However tactical moves against surveillance being employed in everyday life can still be simple and easily practiced by the powerless group.

For example, people can refuse to become any loyalty club member to avoid stores from gleaning personal information, or people purchased special plastic license plate cover to block the photo radar cameras. Among the activist and artist world, there are many more substantial surveillance resistance projects going on. A web-based application called iSee employs “Inverse Surveillance” as their tactics “intervene the process of surveillance attempts to undermine or reverse the authoritative power associated with the technology”5. It mapped out the locations of CCTV in the urban areas and use computer algorithms to allow users to search for a path from destination A to destination B with minimal surveillance. This type of project provides a site of resistance to those that are vulnerable under the optical gaze, liked the visual minorities who are subjected to stereotyping as the threat to security, or women that simply being watched for “voyeuristic” reasons. There is another project called 2.4 Ghz designed by Benjamin Gaulon to “survey the surveillance” by using at wireless video receiver to hack into wireless surveillance camera and broadcast the hacked footage to the public6. Ultimately these various tactical moves allow the general public to make a statement towards the wide spread surveillance being imposed on their life to balance out the overpowered social control inserted by the governance body.


I have looked at multiple aspects of the impacts of surveillance on our urban life. We looked at the surveillance as social control, which usually being inserted onto the public sphere in the name of security, but it also serves the purposes for governance and institutions to exercise their power on the public. Surveillance also excise invisibly as a population management tool, that we are constantly being classified and categorized which influence how individual is being identified and affects the various chances in life. The rise of applying biometric technology as an identification of individual posing the threat of providing means for others to construct identities for us using fragmented and abstract body data. It resurrected the practice of the old time and the new technology can easily stay away from the scrutiny by the public.

I believe as a person trained to be an artist and cultural critic, it is important to constantly investigate cultural phenomenon, liked the topic of surveillance, with a critical mind. Therefore development and research on tactics or resistance to control is an empowerment to the vulnerable. When we see the masses becoming accustomed to the surveillance structure and start losing the awareness of how their lives are being influenced by it, I am hoping that my learning and education will bring contribution to the scrutiny of the institutional power. Ultimately I hope that our thoughts and concerns will reduce the risk of injustice and balance the power exercised by the governance and institutional force.

1 Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish - The birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

2 Information originally from: Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” in Customs in Common. New York: New Press, 1991. 352-403

3 Information from “Surveillance as Social Sorting” p.2.

4. Originally from O.H. Gandy, “Exploring Identity and Identification in Cyberspace.” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy 14:1085-1111.


Ball, Kirstie. “Organization, surveillance and the body: towards a politics of resistance”, Theorizing Surveillance: The panopticon and beyond, edited by David Lyon. Cullompton, Devon : Willan Publishing, 2006; 296-317.

Ericson, Richard and Haggerty, Kevin. “The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility”, The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility, edited by Kevin D. Haggery and Richard Ericson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006; 3-25.

Gandy JR, Oscar. “Data MIning, Surveillance, and Discrimination in the Post-9/11 Enviornment”, The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility, edited by Kevin D. Haggery and
Richard Ericson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006; 363-384.

Graham, Stephen, “The Software-Sorted City: Rethinking the “Digitial Divide”, The Cybercities Reader, edited by Stephen Graham. London ; New York : Routledge, 2004; 324-331.

Haggerty, Kevin. “Tear down the walls: on demolishing the panopticon”, Theorizing Surveillance: The panopticon and beyond, edited by David Lyon, Cullompton, Devon : Willan Publishing, 2006; 23-45.

Lyon, David, “Biometrics, Identification and Surveillance”, Bioethics,Vol 22 Number 9 2008; 499-508.

Lyon, David, “Introduction”, Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination, edited by David Lyon. London ; New York : Routledge, 2003.

Lyon, David, “Surveillance in the City”, The Cybercities Reader, edited by Stephen Graham. London ; New York : Routledge, 2004; 299-305.

Lyon, David, Surveillance society: monitoring everyday life, Buckingham ; Phildelphia, PA. : Open University, 2001.

Marx, Gary, “A Tack in the Shoe: Neutralizing and Resisting the New Surveillance” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2003; 369-390.

Van der Ploeg, Irma, “Biometrics and the body as information: normative issues of th socio-technical coding of the body”, Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination, edited by David Lyon, London ; New York : Routledge, 2003; 57-73.

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