Is it possible to argue that surveillance can be pervasive but at the same time transparent and democratic?
An analysis of surveillance has in recent years been primarily relegated to the exclusive sphere of persons and populations. For many theorists ‘social surveillance’ in its purest form – to watch and observe persons, groups of people, or in the unique eyes of Ulrick Beck the ‘Ecological Environment’ – is not intrinsically immoral or sinister. What is in need of consideration are certain ethical questions:
How, or in what manner, are observations to be conducted and recorded? How will information gathered be used and disseminated? Who, or what, is to be watched, and why? Who should ‘do the watching’? And finally, who stands to gain the most from the construction and distribution of the surveillance technologies ‘doing the watching’?
These questions ask us to address the role of surveillance in two ways; a theoretical and ‘real-world’ sense. It is theoretically possible to conceive of an ideal set of conditions, a world where surveillance is used transparently to help solve social antagonisms, party political conflicts and inequalities in society. But it remains to be seen whether in reality – in the current state of global affairs – surveillance can really be pervasive without being invasive. Can, then, surveillance really be pervasive but not invasive, transparent and not secret?
The ‘invasion of privacy’ and corrosion of civil liberties is key to this discussion. Critical theorists like Orwell and Huxley have always worried about how democratically illegitimate ‘authorities’ – unelected by the public – may use surveillance to manage populations.
Social contextualism in the context of ‘Liquid’ Capitalism: Globalisation, the erosion of civil liberties and the dissolution of ‘the Public
Various ‘authorities’ across the globe have attempted to consolidate power – governments, military intelligence agencies and business elites collude to protect their wealth. Without extreme diligence, resilience and efficiency, democratic republics find it hard to uphold civil liberties and manage corporate corruption.
The ‘Casino Royal’ of this fluid and flexible ‘Information Age’ is nothing more than the global ‘Stock Exchange’ – in which thousands of million-sterling business transactions are gambled on every minute. Computerisation and trade liberalisation has made it almost impossible to trace, and then proficiently regulate, illegal gambling and dangerous speculation of unsecure loans, mortgages and national budget deficits between companies and nation states. Tracking and monitoring financial fluctuations on a fast-moving ‘free market’ seems unfeasible in the context of what has recently been described by Zygmunt Bauman as the individualisation of risk in ‘Liquid Modernity’.
As Bauman comments:
“…as every police unit dedicated to ‘serious crime’ will have found out, illegal acts committed at the ‘top’ are exceedingly difficult to disentangle from the dense network of daily, ‘ordinary’ company dealings.” (Bauman, 1998:123)
Bauman goes onto exclaim:
“Robbing whole nations of their resources is called ‘promotion of free trade; robbing whole families and communities of their livelihood is called ’downsizing’ or just ‘rationalization’. Neither of the two has ever been listed among criminal and punishable deeds.” (Bauman, 1998:123)
It’s those on the ‘top’ who are currently reaping the rewards of irresponsible investments and neoliberal consumer markets. In unaccountable and undemocratic business deals the ‘top’ elites trade in arms, currencies and natural resources to secure their economic interests. It is well documented that Halliburton get paid to rebuild nations and CEO’s make huge profits from illegal arms sales. Instead of being reprimanded for their social irresponsibility, state officials, bankers, corporate CEO’s and military generals are rarely held accountable for their ‘agencies’ detrimental actions on marginalised and impoverished populations across the globe.
Whilst vast majorities of the global population struggle daily to find their next meal, business elites get away with keeping profits carefully hidden and cosseted. When tax evasion is common place public funds go unaccounted. The ‘authorities’ – those who own the means of production; shareholders, financial advisors and managerial administrators – collect the dividends and enjoy the benefits of extreme wealth.
We have a situation in which many people face starvation and children die every day from preventable diseases like Malaria. Yet a free market system that encourages large corporations to move through the borders of nation states exploiting desperately poor populations forced to except low wages and inhumane working conditions is said to be the best of all economic models (Fukuyama, 2002).
“…it is evident that the old goals of social justice and social inclusion are today rather weakly supported, with the result that issues of wealth distribution, let alone re-distribution, are simply politically and academically uninteresting.” (Rose, 2000:65)
But a discussion of ‘social surveillance’ and pervasive technologies in the context of democracy requires these preliminarily oversights. In any piece of sociological analysis, especially when discussing a topic like risk and surveillance, the extreme disparities in income and wealth that exist throughout the world must be acknowledged as having a significant impact on the shape and distribution of surveillance technologies (Loader, 1998).
By developing exclusive databases and storing personal details for commercial use, those who have the time, skills and ‘expertise’ to conduct scientific studies and social surveys hold an elite sector in society. Whoever controls the manufacture, distribution and management of surveillance technologies wields tremendous power, and could profit greatly from them. Whoever has access to information technologies and channels of communication can shape the political agenda by dominating the ‘the Media’.
“Today the media is more concerned with vast hikes in the share value of biotechnology companies and a possible cancer drug than exploring the risks also on offer” (Rose, 2000:67).
Over the next decade the distribution of science and technology, research and development and other multimedia informatics will be indispensable in the defence of democracy (Webster, 1991). Inequalities in wealth, technocratic power and scientific knowledge may amplify what has been described as the ‘digital divide’ (Loader, 1998).
David Lyon comments:
“The so-called digital divide is not merely a matter of access to information. Information itself can be the means of creating divisions” (Lyon, 2003:2).
The unequal distribution and control of information technologies, surveillance devices and centralised, private databases reflect the ‘free’ market policies of liquid capitalism. With that said, the first questions we should be asking ourselves:
In whose interest does social surveillance really operate? Or more precisely, when the rationalisation of neoliberal trade becomes the standard archetype of liquid modernity, who stands to benefit the most from the creation and use of new pervasive technologies, and how can surveillance actually help in the interests of social justice?
In a world increasingly dominated by global oligarchies – independent financial institutions (the Banks), technological monopolies (like Microsoft), transnational corporations (like PRI-MARK), arms companies (like BAE Systems), secret service agencies (like the CIA) – it is implausible and unlikely that surveillance technologies will remain publicly ‘neutral’ and in the hands of democratic republics.
When military dictatorships govern state apparatus like in Burma, and when (unelected Military Commissions) administrate on executive committees designing foreign and public policy – transparency, accountability and social equality must be demanded. Even as I write this armed ‘security forces’ in Thailand are quelling opposition protesters attempting to overthrow the military elite.
For the rich and powerful in any political economy ‘surveillance’ has always been seen as a secretive process dominated by covert operations, and executed by military intelligence agencies and ‘security forces’. This is still a given; a normative statement of intent. This is why control of surveillance is so crucial, and has become of urgent concern for governing ‘authorities’ attempting to manage technologies in a 21st century ‘surveillance society’ (Lyon, 2003).
The warning signs are literally on the wall – ‘CCTV is in operation’ – and the ‘authorities’ are watching closely. Who, then, is exactly watching these ‘security cameras’ and why? Britain now has more CCTV cameras per person than any other nation. There are greater numbers of police cameras on British streets than in the past. It is illegal for the public to film police in Britain, but they can legally film the public – is this democratic? Why are police so keen to monitor the public? Could we really be seeing the first signs of a police state?
“The spread of CCTV over city-centre streets represents the most visible sign of the “dispersal of discipline” from the prison, to the factory and the school, to encompass all the urban landscape” (Norris, 2003:249).
The message is fear, and it’s loud and clear. It can be heard in train stations and airports across the country – ‘please report any suspicious behaviour; any unattended luggage may be destroyed’. A culture of suspicion has engulfed the modern urban environment. The individualisation of risks and liquid capitalism reigns supreme.
“The individualisation of risk thus fosters ever-spiralling levels of surveillance, implying that automated categorization occurs with increasing frequency” (Lyon, 2003:21).
It is, arguably, not just luggage the public should be worried about, but the possible erosion of civil liberties altogether. Brain Haw the peace activist was targeted; much of his campaign material and banners removed from outside parliament. And with the recent trial of political demonstrators, one imprisoned for 2 years on charges of minor public offences, perhaps the message should be re-verbalised: ‘any unattended liberties may be destroyed.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just civil liberties that are disappearing out of sight with small, invisible, and incremental judicial steps; many of our most basic freedoms could also disappear if we’re not careful.
“With digital systems, it is possible to utilize the Internet as the platform by which images can be distributed between the cameras and the control room monitors, allowing images to be viewed simultaneously from any point on the Internet. Any centralized authority may potentially have real-time access to any images from any system simply by connecting to the Internet. Therefore, M16 operatives in London can view a “Stop the War” demonstration in Glasgow and simultaneously route the image to their CIA counterparts in Washington and Paris.” (Norris, 2003:272)
Fortunately for some the Internet has a greater potential to promote democracy, there are still civil rights activists and pro-democratic advocates on the case and using the Internet to galvanise support, organise criminal enquires and encourage public debate. Dedicated civil servants keep the public informed, opening up transparent, visible, channels of communication, in order to ensure freedom of information, public participation and democratisation of law and order. However, without public consent, adjustments have been made to legislation and the remit of police powers. Not only are human rights being taken away by the ‘authorities’ but the activists attempting to maintain them also seem to be repressed. As Andrew Webster notes:
“Statutes requiring release of an enabling access to information do exist –such as the Freedom of Information Act – and have been used by the less-advantaged or pressure groups to challenge the power of the political and economic elites. Of course, those who enjoy considerable economic and political advantage may endeavour to develop countervailing statutes that limit the effect of any challenge from below.” (Webster, 1991:61)
Although governments wield considerable public power we now have the situation, in Briton at least, in which the state has lost almost all economic power. A strategic plan employed by the rich that allowed private industries and businesses to step in and fill the boots of government has worked. The remnants of Reganomics and Thatcherism – resolutions to endorse economic freedom by deregulating markets, liberalising trade barriers and devolving the ‘heavy-hand’ of state intervention in ‘private affairs’ – has arguably caused collapses in the public sector. Civil society will weaken if people are told that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ even if community bonds tighten.
Ever since the 1960’s a lull in endorsement, support and participation in government has seen a growth in grass-roots movements outside of traditional politics. Especially in the decade after the 1980’s political apathy grew. Is it any wonder public confidence in politicians is fragile? The republics have lost faith in government, so now the private sector runs the office. Leaving those on the margins of society – the homeless, the poor and the exploited – more vulnerable than ever before and reliant on a network of charities and voluntary organisations. And,
“…for those still in dire need, because of unemployment, illness, single parenthood, or poverty otherwise generated, surveillance is tightened as a means of discipline” (Lyon, 2003:21).
The Realities Before and After 9/11: Terrorism, the real invisible enemy and surveillance technologies in the 21st century.
Those who pose a risk to the ‘authorities’ are blacklisted and – with the help of new surveillance technologies – an ‘eye’ is kept on them at all times. In political terms, anybody wishing to depose the ‘authorities’ and deemed to be subversive are designated as target populations; and subsequently labelled as ‘terrorists’. Yet who exactly falls under the banner of ‘terrorist’ remains ambiguous. Context is essential, especially when acknowledging the age old truth that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
Historically there have been many forms of social surveillance, but from the First and Second World wars onwards, and throughout the Cold War era, the ‘authorities’ have been especially keen on covert military operations. According to the testimonies of spy’s and informants like John Stockwell (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FElp4V5YRi0), Barry Seal and Oliver North (see http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKseal.htm) directly involved in reported cases of abuse and corruption; money laundering, drug trafficking and the deployment of armed forces in the use of covert military operations is widespread as Gary Webb highlights in his book ‘Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion’.
The CIA openly declares having attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro on over 600 occasions. The CIA, and other secret services, use any excuse for military intervention and intelligence gathering operations in an attempt to profile, screen and then remove from society (with either imprisonment or assassination) those who oppose the ‘status quo’ – rebels, political dissidents and subversives – all coming under the remit of ‘terrorist’. Dig a little deeper and one finds that conspiring to topple the ‘People’s Government’ is a CIA pastime. The CIA has funded and supported death squads all over the world; armed forces in Angola, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, and other military juntas in Central America and South-East Asia, and continue to do so around the globe (Stockwell, 1984).
Ironically, it is ‘state terrorism’ – in other words the use of false-flag operations, sabotage and military intervention as tactics for establishing ‘control over regions of strategic value’ – that is not uncommon practice and now out in the open. Installing dictatorships conducive to the interest of big business, the Shah in Iran for instant, is all done on the proviso that surveillance operations provide ‘correct’ information on target groups, i.e. those in Iran who sought to nationalise the oil industry over which British Petroleum had a monopoly. Regimental, hard-line, state militarism has induced a global arms race and resulted in the proliferation of war and cycles of violence over natural resources and land.
It is in this context then that we can begin to understand why in the modern era gathering intelligence, compiling databases and employing information technologies plays an increasingly greater role in social surveillance.
“The older risk society was different from the new; today it is techno-economism, not Cold War militarism, which is the primary, though not exclusive, generator of risk” (Rose, 2000:66).
Even before the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, the police, military, secret services and many private ‘security forces’ have been building the infrastructure and means necessary to install and control surveillance technologies in an attempt manage and monitor target populations (Lyon, 2003). Informatics, centralised databases, social sorting techniques and intelligence gathering technologies (like CCTV, GPS wiretaps etc) have become weapons in the arsenal of the oligarchy. The ‘authorities’ fight to discipline, into submission, those they call the ‘public enemy’.
“If surveillance as social sorting is growing, this is not merely because some new devices have become available. Rather, the devices are sought because of the increasing number of perceived and actual risks and the desire more completely to manage populations – whether these populations are citizens, employees, or consumers” (Lyon, 2003:20).
As Lyon describes in his book ‘Surveillance after September 11’ increased surveillance on university campuses and in academic departments targeting students and scholars deemed to be a risk to government and a threat to the interests of big business are not only being persecuted, but students and scholars themselves are asked to ‘rat’ on their fellow colleges to the police ‘authorities’.
“After 9/11, not only is everyone a potential terrorist, everyone is also a potential spy” (Lyon, 2003:56).
The end of the cold war has not brought with it an end to suspicion. Far from it, a ‘war on communism’ has evolved into a ‘war on terror’. One might convincingly say we’ve entered an era of capitalist suspicion known as post-modern McCarthyism; where everyone’s a suspect – potential spy or terrorist.
Surveillance often focuses on the symptoms of terrorism, the isolated attack in-itself and the risks of future attacks. By concentrating on individual acts of terrorism, huge amounts of public resources get invested in surveillance technologies that fail to actually tackle the root causes of terrorism. The ‘authorities’ ignore corruption at the ‘top’ organisational levels and target the individual instead of trying to identify the root causes of terrorism like social injustice, inequality, colonialism, stealing of natural resources, state terrorism i.e. war, to name a few.
If the ‘authorities’ are illegally spying on individuals who they deem a ‘risk to security’, incarcerating – without a fair and public trial – and then torturing them in secrecy we know this is not a true democracy. In a civil society torture as method of gathering intelligence would not be allowed, misinformation collected by complacent intelligence agents would not be used and a truly democratic government would cement human rights in concrete. Then the death of Charles De Menendez, an innocent man shot 7 times by overzealous police officers might have prevented.
However, with rendition through Britain, and reports of torture used to gather intelligence – evidence that has mostly derived from false testimonies – the very military agencies and corporate ‘security forces’ claiming to protect us from ‘terrorism’ may just be the ones who end up terrorising us (Stockwell, 1984).
On an international scale businesses in conjunction with the secret services have always been the main initiators of intelligence gathering operations skilled in espionage. Military Intelligence agencies like the MI5 and multinational corporations like BAE Systems have both been at the forefront of technological innovation and the biggest customers and suppliers of surveillance technologies.
IBM once sold computers to the Nazi’s in the Second World War which were used to sort and manage the vast numbers of Jews sent to concentration camps. There is a lot of evidence that suggests without those computers the Germans could not have carried out the holocaust on the scale that they did.
Today we’ve entered a new stage of surveillance. IBM talks of ‘smart’ technology and the possibility a microchip being implanted under the skin. The first trial happened in America not long ago. Global security firms, not without mentioning all the other economic interests involved, stand to make huge sums of money from the development of ID cards, CCTV systems and ‘smart’ technologies. There has recently been an advert by IBM about embracing a new, ‘smart’ future.
“A spate of proposals for new national ID card systems followed the attacks of 11 September 2001. Most involve the use of a biometric and an embedded programmable chip, commonly known as “smart cards”. (Lyon, 2003:3).
In the last century the ‘defence’ industry has merged with surveillance industries to become the third biggest industry in the world. ‘Defence & Security Equipment International’ (DSEi) the world’s largest arms fair is held in East London every year. Officially supported by a plethora of military, police and private security organisations, the ‘Expo’ will host over 250 exhibitors including leading arms companies such as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, and is endorsed by state agencies such as the MoD and NATO. If the public don’t have access and control over the flow of arms and surveillance technologies, is this a democracy?
Other than arms, BAE systems develops biometric and IT systems for civilian use. It recently appointed an ex-FBI expert in forensics and DNA research to help with creating and implementing new IT systems for the public sector. In peacetime there is an economic incentive for corporations to move from the military sector into the civilian market.
“From the industry’s point of view, the high cost of any such system is one of its most attractive features…for the last decade, the smart-card industry has been trying to find a large project upon which to roll out the extensive [pervasive] infrastructure necessary to introduce smart-cards to society at large.” (Lyon and Stalder, 2003: 86)
It seems evident today to suggest that we live in an information age; with technologies providing us with unprecedented freedoms to survey new horizons. We’ve already reached a state in which surveillance technologies are sufficiently pervasive enough to call them potentially invasive. Seeing as it is no longer a matter of whether public life can withstand an ‘invasion of privacy’, the question now stands: in the 21st century will the omnipresent monitoring of everyday life be conducive to a sense of freedom and social justice?
“The historical evidence, from situations such as Nazi Germany, South Africa under apartied, and the contemporary, from the state of Israel or from a country such as Singapore, is that the use of such [ID] cards has been – and is – used to single out population groups for ‘special treatment’. Jews, blacks and Palestinians are among the groups who suffer in these situations.” (Lyon and Stalder, 2003:88)
Autonomous private authorities, acting with limited public liability, are pushing for the introduction of ID card systems, CCTV devices, GPS Wiretaps, Drones and centralised databases. ANPR (automated number plate recognition) is new invention now in operation by police in Britain; it links up with INTERPOL, an international crime prevention database accessed on the internet by over 120 countries. But is there a need; are these really effective forms of surveillance, or forms of control? And who is really profiting from the introduction of new surveillance technologies in civil society?
“…ID cards are resurfacing again and again. Why? At least part of the answer lies in the fact there are powerful actors who would profit from the introduction of ID cards, independently of their actual usefulness in any specific context. This ID card constituency consists of three groups; politicians, high-tech industry and law enforcement.” (Lyon and Stalder, 2003:86)
David Lyon’s prognosis is that with the introduction of ID cards the ‘information age’ turned ‘surveillance society’ presumes we are ‘guilty until proven innocent’. Having to prove ones innocence proves to be reversing a past trend in law and order and regional power. This seems to be a fair analysis of modern technocratic powers. We all fall victim to surveillance in the workplace in a process of spatial de-territorialisation that comes with the advent of new technologies monitoring our every move.
Surveillance in the workplace is epitomised by an obsession with Post-Fordist time management and implemented by a program of targets, quotas and shifts. Globalisation, liquid modernity, soft capitalism, social mobility and flexibility all equate to less responsibility. It is easy to run away from responsibilities when there is a lack of commitment and only flexible social contracts (Bauman, 1998).
Indiscriminately targeting, screening and sorting every individual in society into categories for greater technocratic management of populations is bound to end up harming someone in the long run. A surveillance society like this incriminates those who either deviate from the standard or dare to challenge the ‘authorities’ – and making a suspect out of the rest of us – creates a global age of an almost Orwellian nature, most notably, counter-productive to trust, solidarity and democracy. So what does this mean for the future?
The Possibilities of a Future World: Trust, the ecological risks of globalisation and the power of the Internet
When the rich and powerful feel threatened, when they perceive ‘external risks’ as challenging their wealth and status they build up defences. In terms of military might and ‘counter-intelligence’ surveillance of dissidents, subversives and ‘terrorists’ dominate the political agenda. In his famous book ‘Spy Catcher’ even Peter Wright (former assistant director of MI5) admits ‘being economical with the truth’.
Spy’s trained in espionage are serviced by the elite to target specific groups deemed a ‘risk to national security’ without the knowledge and consent of the general population. Grass-roots communities are commonly targeted and ‘opposition’ leaders oppressed when attempts are made at self governance, trade unionism, egalitarian forms of wage distribution and a democratic ownership of resources – values that may undermine privilege or challenge ‘authorities’.
If the tentacles of surveillance technologies continue along this trajectory far from being open and democratic the likelihood of centrally controlled information databases being transparent is in decline. The moment there are particular organisations like the MI5 that operate invisibly and out of public sight then there is always room for abuse and a lack of transparency.
As Walter Laqueur observes in his book ‘World of Secrets’:
“After he resigned as prime minister, Harold Wilson wrote that he saw the heads of MI5 and MI6 so infrequently that he confused the names of their directors.” (Laqueur, 1985:209)
Then goes on the note that:
“… Ministers are not to concern themselves with detailed information obtained by MI5, but “are furnished with such information only as may be necessary for the determination of an issue on which guidance is sought”.” (Laqueur, 1985:210)
There are a certain set of conditions, particular criteria that must be met in order for surveillance to be pervasive, transparent and democratic. The use, distribution and management of surveillance technologies are dependent on a number of circumstances required for transparency. The crucial principle, for social cohesion, is no more than trust. In the future we must lay channels of trust, not secrecy, in order to facilitate social responsibility and justice.
Transparency relates to visibility and traceability, on which the public depends for democracy. Democracy based on secrecy and mistrust is not a democracy. When the ‘authorities’, whether military intelligence agencies, private security forces, corporations, government secret services or otherwise, go about keeping tabs on people, using personal information to control power and wealth, and exploit vulnerable members of a community, then surveillance technologies are definitely not being managed democratically and transparently.
In order for surveillance to be pervasive and trustworthy, private institutions need to be held directly accountable for any harm they may cause the general population or environment. Trust is needed to ensure this, public organisations must be set up to specifically investigate and publicise accounts of exploitation, pollution etc by private enterprise. In all sectors of society public concerns must be recognised and acted upon. All private businesses should be legally obliged to publish commercial activities, finances and company dealings. All private businesses must be subject to public scrutiny and liable to the local community in which they operate. The employees that manage commodities or services should have regular meetings with local community committees which hold corporations to account.
‘Public acts’ pertain to a legal framework, the function of which is to defend the interests of the ‘general population’. In the name of democratic justice every single Human Rights Convention has an article preserving and respecting civil liberties and the public right to privacy. As defined by civil society ‘government’ is meant to be a public representative, a social organisation designed to serve the community and act on behalf of a democratic majority and municipal consensus.
The government of a democratic republic, by treating all citizens as equals, is supposed to protect the ‘commonwealth’ – overruling the interests of a minority in favour of the ‘majority rule’. The public function of government, in its very essence, presupposes democratic participation and social justice. Yet we are currently in a situation in which governments are increasingly being ‘bought’ by big business, as the bailing out of private banks and financial institutes with public money recently highlighted. The only hope is that information technologies distributed and managed in an equal, open and democratic form could contribute greatly to countering corruption in the Banking industry by monitoring their movements.
Rousseau believed at least three levels of authority were needed to keep the balance of power in check, and ensure no one institution, governing body or private business gets too powerful. Arguably there need to be even more public representatives than that. If a community shares the wealth of the land, ownership of essential resources is a ‘commonwealth’, there tends to be a greater sense of social solidarity and a visible public presence of mutual respect and affection. The power of social movements, women’s liberation, civil rights, environmentalism and the ‘counter-culture’ have the potential for creating a democratic community.
“As Marx has noted, for some, the electronic surveillance technologies can be viewed as democratizing the surveillance gaze” (Norris, 2003:253)
This observation predicates a global, uniform system with equal access by all. If technologies like CCTV are used exclusively by the authorities then there is limited room for transparency. If used by the public in the interests of social justice CCTV in the court room can be a very productive way of establishing the events of a crime without the fallibility of eye witness testimonies. Similarly, the camera in all its forms also provides a powerful method of watching the watchers, for example at the G20 demonstrations in 2009. The law prohibiting this use would need to be repealed.
Nothing can stop the Internet; no-one disputes the power of the Internet in the 21st century. Networks like Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook, and other underground super information highways, are bringing people together across the globe and braking down geographical borders like never before. The internet is the most pervasive democratic tool for the ‘people’ if used responsibly. Surveillance of corporations and governments could be possible through transparent and open access information centres linked to local community committees and courts, thus empowering disadvantaged, marginalised and deprived communities. Online voting, where everyone can follow the changes and pattern of votes as they happen may provide an answer to apathy. This amounts to a series of online republics that reflect local constituencies.
There needs to be a transition from representative democracy to participatory democracy: representative democracy is too old fashioned. Perhaps, having the internet in every home is a positive step towards democratic transparency. To face the problems of environmental destruction and resource depletion the internet may prove necessary to increase levels of participation in the business institutions and governing bodies that organise and manage social life; having free access to information and open communication channels is an urgent purgative.
However, without electricity, hence energy, the ‘information age’ of consumer capitalism ends; so too will covert military intelligence gathering operations, and with it the demand by business institutions for surveillance technologies. Financially, the business elite stand to gain a lot, but that means they could also, potentially, make huge loses. Throughout the last century, a global ‘defence’ industry emerged to secure energy supplies and natural resources. The ‘governing authorities’ promise it is in the interests of ‘national security’ that they invade sovereign countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, not for reasons of ‘oil profits’, precious chemicals and resources.
The business world uses a ‘climate of fear’ and atmosphere of suspicion to broker back-door trade. In this context surveillance will probably lead to further divisions in society, greater global disparities in wealth and higher levels of discrimination and persecution. However, as Ulrick Beck notices perhaps it’s not a ‘climate of fear’ we should be worried about, but ‘climate change’. Surveillance should be focused on the global environment. Surveillance of ecosystems, say through environmental audits and natural research may prove a more valuable use of new technologies.
Ulrich Beck’s discussion of ‘ecological risks’ demonstrates that our greatest threat isn’t ‘terrorism’ but ‘climate change’ and the agencies failing to respond to this. In tackling the problems of ‘climate change’ the role of environmental movements not elitism, and social democracy not ‘expertocracy’ is crucial for Beck. Ecological risks – pollution, deforestation, energy crises – stem from incessant economic growth, overconsumption and industrialisation. Although all this ‘toxic waste’ is being produced by neoliberal consumer markets, free-market capitalism it is still seen, in the West at least, to be the greatest economic model and the best of all possible worlds. Surely we can do better than what Fukuyama calls the ‘end of history’.
It is very close to becoming a reality: surveillance, the ‘all seeing eye in the sky’, patently is pervasive. Luckily we’re not yet in a situation in which CCTV cameras are in every home. That would not produce a world anyone would want to live in. There must be a limit to the degrees to which surveillance technologies and intelligence gathering operations reveal and uncover all aspects of our private life.
It is in the public’s interest to legally debate and negotiate that limit. It is, therefore, crucial that individuals come together and that all members of the community democratically discuss and enforce a permissible level of surveillance. This must be done transparently, all figures, budgets and decision-making rationalities must be out in the open; all people must have access to the information they need to make an informed judgement on social policy and corporate management.
Major criminal investigations, public enquiries, scientific research, cultural projects etc, need to be open and public. That no-one is exempt is imperative, either everyone is indiscriminately watched and monitored (including the watchers) or no-one is. In order that no ‘individuals’ are excluded from the legal apparatus that operates in the interests of social justice we must all be included in the political process. Accessing surveillance technologies and databases has to be transparent, so that everyone is equally participating in, and controlling, the direction and flow of information.
It is theoretically possible, in a world beyond the current state of affairs, to make the case that ‘surveillance’ in a none-invasive but openly pervasive context has the potential to spread into social spaces, both public and private, and be transparent and democratic. This does not negate that it is, or will be, and we should not underestimate the dangerous risks associated with personal and collective information ‘falling into the wrong hands’. Surveillance technologies controlled by a small minority of business elites will most likely further divisions in society along racial, religious and economic lines, and not fall in line with the democratic majority. Instead, through bureaucratisation lead to stricter bands of identification and classification.
There is always a danger of an Orwellian ‘Big Brother watching our every move’ with authoritarian control over all aspects of social interaction. Everything depends upon on the state of social relations. If there is culture of suspicion then surveillance is less likely to be transparent and democratic, but if there is ‘mutual trust’ and a sense of social solidarity chances of participatory democracy increase. If by definition ‘social surveillance’ intrinsically assumes some state of secrecy, as a covert function with a cloak of invisibility and no traceability, then surveillance will never be democratic and transparent.
If we oppose a panoptical approach and suppose instead an inclusive understanding of surveillance then it is possible for the majority of people to participate in, and control technical channels of information with transparency and in a democratic manner. Public institutions could, hypothetically, maintain authority over data sorting and intelligence gathering operations with the protection of a Freedom of Information Act. So long as communities acting as a public stay diligent and involved in the political process, and in the economic organisation of social surveillance, democracy might prevail.
If we are monitoring levels of literacy, mortality, poverty and social cohesion among the general population; making the figures public in order to locate ‘problem areas’; using the data collected to target and combat inequality, injustice and environmental devastation; then it is possible to see how social surveillance could play a positive role in civil society.
If, however, certain organisations (like the CIA and MI5) are collecting information and monitoring the ‘public’ in secret and without democratic consent from the general population; if they are maintaining power by eliminating perceived ‘risks to security’ to protect the interests of the establishment, business oligarchies, military elites and imperial powers; then surveillance simply becomes a tool of the rich.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards A New Modernity. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Beck, U. (1995) Ecological Enlightenment: Essays On The Politics Of The Risk Society. New York: Humanity Books.
Fukuyama, F. (2002) Our Post-Human Future: Consequences Of The Biotechnology Revolution. London: Profile Books Ltd.
Laqueur, W. (1985) World Of Secrets: The Uses And Limits Of Intelligence. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd.
Loader, Brain D. (1998) Chapter 1: Introduction. in (1998) Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency And Policy In The Information Society. (Edited By Brain D. Loader) London and New York: Routledge.
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