The most important aspect operation
Surveillance, a term which depicts close watching of people or things, is usually associated with places such as airports and banks. These are places where security is one of if not the most important aspect of their operation. This narrow view of what surveillance involves is becoming more erroneous with each passing day. This is because surveillance is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our society. People want to feel more secure, and many do feel more secure because of augmented levels of surveillance. However, such security is robbing people of their privacy.
Thus, the public need for security has to be balanced with individual rights to privacy. However, following the September 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon the balance between privacy and security has shifted substantially. “What was considered Orwellian one week seemed perfectly reasonable – even necessary – the next”(Penenberg, 2001). A surveillance society began creeping into our culture long before September 11. In the name of safety people have become increasingly comfortable with cameras monitoring their daily activities.
While databases, cell phones, credit cards and web browsers bring many conveniences and make life easier, they allow us to be tracked, and this is not just in the United States, but also in countries such as Canada and England. For example, England has about 1. 5 million surveillance cameras – more than any other country, with plans to double that numbert within three years. According to the Times of London, the average citizen can expect to be taped every five minutes (Penenberg, 2001).
The types of surveillance that have now become so common are databases, closed-circuit television (CCTV), workplace-based surveillance, and online surveillance. Electronic monitoring is now even used to keep track of offenders in the community. Each of these serve functions which mainly deal with information and security. Databases have been around for years, and are used by many organizations and businesses. They are used to gather information on people for future reference. For example, a doctor has a file listing patients’ past visits and diagnoses while an auto insurance company has a file on the driving records of its clients.
When technology comes into play, these databases become more efficient as computers make the retrieval of data much quicker, easier to correlate and store. How many of these databases hold information on the average person? Although it is next to impossible to gather an exact number, it is likely that there is information stored on almost everyone in western society. Information about people is contained in databases for healthcare, revenue services, motor vehicle registration, movie rental stores, insurance companies, places where they have worked, criminal records, and the list goes on.
There are three principle types of databases: government, business-based, and employment, all of which have different agendas for this information which they have collected. The government collects its data mostly so they will know important administrative information, which consists mostly of statistical type information. Businesses mostly collect information so they can better market themselves towards consumers. Workplaces collect information mostly for administrative purposes as well, but lately have been collecting a lot of information to ensure productivity is as good as it should be.
Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) is another type of surveillance technology being used increasingly. CCTV is a type of television based monitoring used by banks, airports, stores, and lately has been spreading to other places such as universities. This type of technology is also used for security. The security of people is the focus for cameras in such places as airports and universities, while security of merchandise is the main objective of places like banks and stores. It is not these private CCTV operations which seem to bother people but government CCTV.
Government CCTV is often installed at intersections, an attempt at stopping people from going through red lights, along roads, an attempt to stop speeding, and around problem spots for crimes such as auto theft, so that criminals would be less likely to steal cars. There is growing concern over unethical and other purposes for which these cameras might be used. For example, there are examples of electronic surveillance of political opponents by governments. Although such action is associated with a very corrupt government, it is nonetheless still quite possible.
If, for example, President Bush wanted “to dig some dirt” on Richard Gephardt, the Democratic Party House Leader, he could simply have someone hired to keep watch of him using CCTV cameras. It would seem that in a democratic country such as Canada or the United States such a thing would be less likely to happen than in more repressive countries such as China. China already oppresses its people greatly without the help of much technology. With such technology, there are a huge number of new avenues for repression of political opponents.
In Britain, where CTTV cameras are used extensively, there is no evidence as to their effectiveness in reducing crime. Rather, while rates of crime may have dropped in places where cameras were installed, they increased around the periphery (Norris and Armstrong, 1999, pp. 63-67). Thus, CCTV cameras serve to deter and reduce crime, only in those areas where the cameras are installed. Many would argue that the solution would be to simply put the cameras everywhere so that all areas would benefit from the crime reduction. The problem with this is that it is a technological fix to a sociological problem.
Whatever cause there is for people resorting to such an act as stealing a car or a stereo from a car still remains. Over time people will find crimes which they can commit without being on camera or a way around identification while on camera. They could simply counter the technological fix with a fix of their own. Electronic monitoring, which began in the United States in the 1980s and has since spread to other countries, including Canada, is being used increasingly to keep track of people who have been released from prison under some type of house arrest.
A signal from an ankle bracelet alerts authorities if an offender leaves his premises without permission. In 1994 electronic monitoring was introduced to Newfoundland as an alternative to prison, accompanied by a treatment program offered by the John Howard Society. Recent research by the Solicitor General’s Department found that electronic monitoring had no effect on recidivism (the rate in which people got into further trouble with the law). It was found that it was the treatment programs offered by the John Howard Society which were effective.
The electronic monitoring only encouraged clients to complete the program (Sadinsky, 2001, p. 8). Workplace Surveillance is another form of surveillance which is becoming increasingly common. The primary reason for this is quite simple, productivity. Corporations want to ensure their employees are in fact doing the work they are supposed to be doing. Instruments they use for this monitoring include cameras, email intercepting software, web browser spying software, phone monitoring and log programs , which are designed to keep a record of programs which have been run by employees.
Bryant (1995) states that electronic surveillance in the workplace requires further attention in Canada, with better protection for increasingly intrusive electronic surveillance of employees. She believes that the onus must be on the employer as much as the worker to ensure that electronic surveillance is carried out in an acceptable manner. Online surveillance is probably the newest form of electronic surveillance. This form is used to gather information on people while they are online on their computers. This form of snooping is mostly done by companies to gather information.
The methods used to gather this information do vary a lot because of the ‘open’ nature of computers. The two principal forms of this type of surveillance which take place are Spyware (also known as Adware) and Cookies. Spyware came about as a way for software companies who wished to release free software (also known as freeware) and still make money. They started to incorporate banner advertising into their programs. Spyware (or Adware) occurs most commonly in media downloading programs because people must be connected to the Internet to use these programs.
Kazaa was a download program which received much criticism for including the Spyware program. These programs would make it easier for companies to know what to advertise because they would keep track of what kind of songs or movies people are downloading. The privacy issue surfaced as many people refused to use Kazaa because of the Spyware program which came with it. Also, people criticized Microsoft for making a very similar move in their new Windows Media Player for Windows XP, which sends a listing to Microsoft of all the media files which have been played.
Users of the program were especially upset to discover that Microsoft did not inform them of this surveillance feature. Cookies are used by websites to keep track of who is visiting their sites and what settings they have chosen on that webpage. These are being used more and more for advertising purposes. For example, if someone were to visit a website with reviews of lawnmower models, then it is possible the Cookie detector of this or another site would detect this and display an ad for a lawnmower.
This may not seem like a big deal, because most people would rather see ads for things that interest them than things which do not. But there are also people who oppose the intrusiveness of companies keeping track of their online activity. There is a solution for these people – turn off Cookies in their web browsers. However, that also causes another problem. Some sites simply do not accept browsers with Cookies turned off. The Spyware and Cookie examples represent common occurrences of online surveillance. Many more examples of online surveillance and possible and could be going on.
Any website wishing to know the actual identity of someone browsing its site could simply use the IP address of that person and cross check it with an online chat program such as ICQ or AOL Instant Messenger and get the name inputted to their database. With the open nature of computers, many such incidents could be occurring right now without people being aware of it. Nobody can be sure of what tomorrow will bring, but it is likely that existing technologies will come together. A ‘Smart Card’ is one likely possibility. Such a card would carry all the information we have on all our separate cards right now and probably more.
This would likely include banking information, medical information, driver’s licence information, social insurance and so on. However, this would be quite dangerous because all the databases would be accessed by the same card. So an insurance company would be able to check the medical records for every past illness of an applicant to determine its rates or simply deny service. As Lyon (1994, p. 98) states, “This provides a telling illustration of the ways in which conventional boundaries between surveillance spheres are being overridden using the capabilities of new technologies”.
The rapid changes in telecommunications technology have meant a growth in the intrusiveness of electronic surveillance and a tremendous increase in its use. The debate over the effectiveness of electronic surveillance, the extent of its proper use in the workplace and in cyberspace and its intrusiveness will continue, along with over-riding concerns about privacy issues. It appears in the post September 11 era that new surveillance tools will continue to be developed, and the balance between privacy and security will continue to tip more toward security and more toward a surveillance society – a fact that should concern us all.
Bryant, S. (1995). Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace. Canadian Journal of Communications, Volume 20, Number 4.
Lyon, D. (1994). The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Norris, C. ; Armstrong, G. (1999). The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV.
Oxford: Berg Publishing.
Penenberg, A. (2001). The Surveillance Society. Wired Magazine. [On-Line]. Available:
Sadinsky, G. (2001). Eye On Electronic Monitoring. John Howard Magazine, Volume 2, p. 9.