Journal of Social Issues, forthcoming May 2003, vol. 59 (2)
I am grateful to David Johnson, Richard Leo and David Shulman for critical comments and to the supportive environment of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program of the University of California, Berkeley Law School where I was a Visiting Professor when this was written.
By Gary T. Marx
Professor Emeritus, MIT
In light of contemporary efforts to intensify the collection of personal information, this article, as well as articles elsewhere on this web site dealing with the engineering of social control and computer matching and profiling, may be of more than academic interest.
Abstract: Eleven behavioral techniques of neutralization intended to subvert the collection of personal information are discussed: discovery moves, avoidance moves, piggy backing moves, switching moves, distorting moves, blocking moves, masking moves, breaking moves, refusal moves, cooperative moves and counter-surveillance moves. In Western liberal democracies the advantages of technological and other strategic surveillance developments are often short-lived and contain ironic vulnerabilities. The logistical and economic limits on total monitoring, the interpretive and contextual nature of many human situations, system complexity and interconnectedness, and the vulnerability of those engaged in surveillance to be compromised, provide ample room for resistance. Neutralization is a dynamic adversarial social dance involving strategic moves and counter-moves and should be studied as a conflict interaction process.
It may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma of the kind which human ingenuity may not, by proper application resolve.
--Edgar Allen Poe, The Gold Bug
Efforts to protect information on the part of the actor have their logical counterpart in the discovery efforts of those engaged in surveillance. That is, in resisting surveillance individuals are protecting their privacy, while those involved in surveillance seek to break through the personal borders which protect privacy. We can view contexts of personal information discovery and protection behaviorally and make inferences about what the individuals are attempting to do. We can also view these concepts in terms of cultural standards that judge whether behavior is appropriate, ethical and legal.
The study of privacy and secrecy overlaps the study deviance and social control. In many settings privacy and surveillance are different sides of the same nickel. Privacy can serve as a nullification mechanism for the power offered by surveillance (Kelvin, 1973). Surveillance seeks to eliminate privacy in order to determine normative compliance or to influence the individual or for its own ends as with voyeurism (Marx, 2002b).
There are increasingly sophisticated technologies for collecting personal information, such as surveillance cameras and sensors, and for predicting behavior and assessing the truth, such as expert systems (Brin, 1999; Froomkin, 2000; Garfinkle, 2000; Gutwirth, 2002; Staples, 2000). The increased prominence of these surveillance technologies is "pulled" by concerns over issues such as crime, terrorism, and economic competitiveness, and is pushed by newly perceived opportunities offered by technical developments in electronics, computerization, and artificial intelligence. The scale, mobility and anonymity of mass society and, ironically, increased expectations of, and protections for, privacy have furthered reliance on both surveillance technologies and on data-base memories that locate, identify, record, register, classify, and validate or generate grounds for suspicion (Agre & Rotenberg, 1997; Bennett & Grant, 1999; Gandy, 1993; Lyon, 2001; Regan,1995). The fear of catastrophic risks in an interdependent world relying on complex technologies and the entrepreneurial efforts of the security industry and governments, such as the United States with its’ war on drugs, have helped spread the technologies internationally (Andreas, 2000; Ericson & Haggerty, 1997; Nadelmann, 1993).
One noteworthy aspect is the extent to which individuals go along with requests for personal information. This is likely related to beliefs about the advantages of, and need for, providing such information, and trust in authority --factors which often override the ambivalence resulting from traditional privacy and autonomy concerns. Moreover, a lack of resistance to intrusive surveillance may mask as acceptance because of a fear of being sanctioned or losing one's job, position or privilege, or as a necessary condition for something desired such as employment, credit, apartment or car rental, air travel or government benefits. There may also be fatalism and resignation, believing it is impossible to resist.
Many cultural beliefs support the legitimacy of surveillance. Consider statements I heard such as, “I have nothing to hide”, "it’s for my own good", "I support the goals", “I’m getting paid”, “it’s just the way they do things here”, “they have to do it to …[stay competitive, obtain insurance, stop crime, avoid risks]”, "the measure is valid", and "they promise to protect confidentiality." Lack of awareness of the extent and nature of surveillance, or of the potential for abuse and misuse of personal information, may also support acquiescence.
Since completing a study of humans as covert information discoverers (Marx, 1988), I have been studying the social, cultural, ethical and policy implications of new technologies for the collection of personal information (e.g., Corbett & Marx, 1991; Marx 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 a & b, forthcoming). One aspect involves individual resistance to surveillance, the topic considered here.
My method involves observation, interviews, document collection and mining the literature in order to offer a conceptual framework, and eventually testable hypotheses, about personal information collection and protection. Among those interviewed are subjects (e.g., employees subjected to work monitoring, drug tested athletes, political activists) and practitioners of surveillance (e.g., police, private detectives, managers, technology providers).
The identification of factors encouraging the spread of surveillance and the ready availability of newsworthy horror stories of privacy invasions such as the selling of information from AIDS tests or cameras hidden in dressing rooms (e.g., Smith, 1990), too often lead to an unreflective "the sky is falling" view of contemporary surveillance, whether explicit or implicit. The potential of a technology for harm needs to be kept distinct from its’ realization. Just because something negative could happen, does not mean that it must happen. In short, little consideration is given to how the dystopia will actually be produced or to factors working against it, such as practicality, cost, laws and fear of lawsuits, organizational policies, morality, doubts about effectiveness or the ability to control the technology, and concern with public opinion. Control systems are not usually as effective and efficient as their advocates claim and they often have a variety of unintended consequences (Sieber,1981; Marx, 1995; Tenner, 1996).
There is frequently a gap between visible conforming behavior and less visible attitudes, emotions and fantasies. Moreover new technologies rarely enter passive environments of total inequality. Instead they become enmeshed in complex pre-existing systems. They are as likely to be altered as to alter. Professional associations, oversight organizations, and political and social movements are also factors. In contrast to these collective responses, the focus in this article is on individual responses.
Individual and collective responses are often linked as when protest movements grow out of or encourage individual resistance and provide models, resources and legitimation (McAdam & Snow, 1997). However, more spontaneous individual responses can be contrasted with those growing out of explicit organizational efforts. The former may be collective in the sense that many persons respond the same way to the same stimulus, but they are not necessarily organizational. The social and political implications of such individual forms are relatively unstudied.
Whether at work (Gabriel, 1999), in prison (Sykes,1971), in the family, or in efforts to create a carceral society as with the former East Germany (Pfaff, 2000), surveillance targets often have space to maneuver and can use counter-technologies. The individual is often something more than a passive and compliant reed buffeted about by the imposing winds of the more powerful, or dependent only on protest organizations for ideas about resistance. Humans are wonderfully inventive at finding ways to beat control systems and to avoid observation. Most surveillance systems have inherent contradictions, ambiguities, gaps, blind spots and limitations, whether structural or cultural, and, if they do not, they are likely to be connected to systems that do. As Goffman (1961) notes in his study of the underlife of organizations, when individuals feel that surveillance is wrong, or that they are unfairly disadvantaged by it, it will often be challenged. Systems also may be challenged for reasons of self-interest. The scale, complexity and limitations of omnipresent and omnipotent surveillance offer room for this subversion. Boyne (2002) discusses limits of panoptical control as applied to contemporary society. Resistance is a central theme in much contemporary science fiction. Wood (2002)
Behavioral techniques of neutralization are a major form of such challenges. These are one strand of what Scott (1985) calls everyday forms of resistance: “…the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage and so forth” (p. 29). However, powerless takes on a new meaning (beyond its usual association with lower social class or minority status) when we consider the demands of the modern organization (whether private or governmental) for personal information.
This article considers 11 generic techniques of neutralization that observation suggests can be weapons of the strong, as well as the weak. They involve a strategic focus on directly resisting a particular privacy-invading information technology. This strategic focus is in contrast to the sheer contrariness to authority that Foucault (1977) discusses and the non-instrumental forms noted by Scott (1985). The techniques may be accompanied by, or eventually lead to, other individual and collective responses expressing indignation, rejection and rebellion (often with a symbolic element), apart from direct efforts in the immediate context of surveillance. Our emphasis here, however, is on the former.
The behavioral techniques to be discussed have cultural support. There are parallels to more general cultural beliefs supportive of rule breaking identified by Sykes and Matza (1957) as “techniques of neutralization” and Bandura (1999) as “moral deniability.” People will break rules if they regard an organization or its surveillance procedures as unacceptable or illegitimate, untrustworthy or invalid, irrelevant, demeaning, unnecessary or irrelevant. These approaches help answer the question: "How can the rules be broken when the culture is clear in defining this behavior as wrong?” However, in this case, just who is breaking the rules may be disputed (e.g., is it the authorities seeking information to which they are not entitled, or is it those subject to legitimate surveillance seeking to avoid it?).
General cultural counter-beliefs that neutralize the conventional beliefs include: "My rule breaking behavior doesn’t hurt anyone"; "it’s not my fault"; "they had it coming to them"; and “they’ll never know”. More specific cultural beliefs that may accompany efforts to thwart surveillance encountered in my research include: “They have no right to that information”; "it’s none of their business"; "the measure is not accurate"; "it’s unfair"; "it’s discriminatory --they don't monitor the communications of the managers and executives"; "I don't trust them to keep it confidential"; "what if they use it for some other purpose?", "it's irrelevant to how I do my job"; "I did not consent to provide the information"; "it’s sneaky"; "it means they don't trust me"; "it makes me feel like a child"; "my personal information is my property and I am not being paid for its’ use"; "providing that information puts me at a strategic disadvantage."
Such justifications serve to soften a culturally induced tendency toward deference to authority and are counters to the cultural beliefs that legitimate surveillance. Consequently, they may free individuals to resist in the ways discussed below and, after the fact, alleviate guilt.
As with any normative system, there is a moral economy within which individuals may weigh the costs and benefits of compliance and violation and draw personal lines. For example, Gilliom (2001) studied welfare recipients who justified evading a sophisticated surveillance system by the cost to their families of not seeking ways around it, given very stringent limits on the income they were permitted to legally have. However, the inherent value conflicts involving surveillance and the self-interested reasons for evasion hardly require elaborate ideologies of resistance. Moreover, because efforts to counter many of the kinds of surveillance considered here often occur on morally contested ground and are defensive, the need for such justifications may not be as strong as in more conventional crime and deviance settings.
The 11 forms of surveillance neutralization, in the next section, are inductively developed concepts that are the result of several decades of interviews and observations regarding social control. As responses to social control they parallel prior work on strategies for the engineering of social control (Marx, 1995, 2002a). 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 by the interpretive and contextual nature of many human situations.
The 11 prominent types of response to privacy-invading surveillance are: 1) discovery moves, 2) avoidance moves, 3) piggy-backing moves, 4) switching moves, 5) distorting moves, 6) blocking moves, 7) masking (identification) moves, 8) breaking moves, 9) refusal moves, 10) cooperative moves, and 11) counter-surveillance moves.
At a general level these are forms of resistance or non-compliance. The criteria reflect the point of view of the observer and emphasize visible behavior, although some inferences are made about goals. As with most social science categorizations of complex and fluid behavior, this conceptualization is not exhaustive. The categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive and many can be systematically related.
They may be temporally linked, as when discovery of surveillance leads to an effort to avoid it. They may be simultaneously present as when a person wearing gloves to block his fingerprints also masks his true prints by leaving items containing another’s fingerprints. They may be logically linked. Some broad dimensions can be seen to form an umbrella with others serving as ribs or nestled subtypes (e.g., refusal may involve literally saying “no” as when the surveillance is just ignored, or it may involve the refusal to fully cooperate on the grounds desired by surveillors).
In spite of some conceptual and operational haze, these responses are distinctive enough to warrant separate treatment and I have found them useful in capturing commonly occuring and analytically interesting forms. As with any beginning effort, greater specification of the defining criteria and perhaps the addition of other forms are welcomed.
The strategic actions of both watchers and the watched can be thought of as moves in a game, although unlike traditional games, the rules may not be equally binding on all players. There are likely common resistance moves shared by a citizen concerned with protecting personal privacy and a criminal seeking to avoid detection. In spite of the obvious moral difference, I treat these two generic types as behaviorally equivalent in efforts to protect information and to neutralize other’s discovery moves.
Unless otherwise noted, all examples are drawn from my observations and interviews.
1. Discovery Moves
Known as surveillance detection in the intelligence trade, the goal is to find out if surveillance is in operation and where it is. One form involves self-regulation. The subject’s behavior varies depending on whether or not surveillance has been found to be in operation. Drivers slow down when their anti-radar "fuzz buster" warns them that police radar is in use. Here the surveillance "works," at least as long as it is believed to be present.
What Goffman (1974, pp. 97-99) calls “vital tests” may be applied. For example, a criminal may test a would-be partner by requiring that an act of violence, theft, or drug use occur before a drug deal is completed. The film Battle of Algiers offers a riveting example when a potential recruit to the Algerian independence movement is suddenly handed a gun on the street and told to kill a nearby policeman (the recruit himself is a police infiltrator). A similar incident occurs in Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire.
Establishing credibility by having a trusted person vouch for the individual or by using back channels into official records or publicly available data are further examples. A major user of freedom of information acts are criminals seeking to determine the identity of informers. In Britain, in the interest of defending their clients and perhaps more, criminal defense attorneys have even created a data base with the names of those known to be government informers.
Discovery is aided by a thriving private security industry that routinely sweeps offices, homes and vehicles for listening devices and that sells do-it-yourself anti-bugging and other devices --e.g., pocket bug and tape recorder detectors for (as put by a character in the film The Conversation) “your catalogue suckers”. Consider, for example, a small flashlight like device that sells for several hundred dollars which permits finding hidden video cameras.
Every day objects may be examined to see if they are other than what they appear to be --does a towel dispenser, book, or teddy bear hide a video lens? The appearance of a space between one’s fingers and the glass on a mirror may suggest a two-way mirror. Door handles, documents and drawers may be examined under ultra-violet light to see if they have been coated with fluorescent dust. Access keypads to a safe or to a telecommunications device may be inspected to see if they have been coated with a waxy film that will reveal what keys were touched to gain access.
2. Avoidance Moves
These moves may follow the discovery that surveillance is present or it may be assumed that, because surveillance might be present, avoidance is a prudent response. Avoidance moves are passive rather than active and involve withdrawal. There is no effort to directly engage, or tamper with, the surveillance. Rather, there is a temporal, geographical or methodological displacement to times, places and means in which the identified surveillance is presumed to be absent or irrelevant.
Displacement can be across settings (e.g., avoiding supermarkets with frequent shopper cards or making calls from a pay phone which cannot be traced to the location of a telephone subscriber). Displacement may also occur within a given setting (e.g., shoplifters who operate within the interstitial area of surveillance camera blind spots or thieves who know that not all goods or library books are electronically tagged and apply the "five-finger discount" only to untagged items).
Because of concerns over leakage, security consultants advise clients with sensitive information to only use the unsecured telephone, fax or Internet for communications they would not mind seeing in the newspaper the next day and to never use cordless microphones for presentations in non-public meetings. Caution is advised even in face-to-face conversations, unless the room has been recently swept for bugs and the person they are talking to can be checked for electronic signals suggesting transmission or recording.
Beyond the presumed security of face-to-face meetings and dealing only with those who are known or vouched for, physical or social locations presumed to be safe may be favored for secret conversations such as in an open field or boat. Consider, for example, the film The Conversation, in which criminals mistakenly felt safe talking in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, or the Philadelphia organized crime figures who were arrested as a result of electronic surveillance of meetings they held in the offices of their doctor and lawyer. They wrongly assumed that the doctor-patient and lawyer-client privilege precluded such places from police surveillance (New York Times, March 17, 1994).
The introduction of Federally mandated computer record checks offers a nice example of displacement to means less available for surveillance. Computer record matching has made it much more difficult for those on welfare to obtain extra income from a job, workmen’s compensation, retirement or assistance in another state without being discovered. This tightening has likely led to some increase in the use of fraudulent identities and under-the-table forms of payment for work (cash, exchanges) that are beyond the reach of the organizational dossier screen (Gilliom, 2001).
Another form of avoidance is not raising the red flag. Thus, knowing that certain profiles or crossing certain thresholds will trigger surveillance or at least suspicion, individuals stop short of this or avoid triggering characteristics. For example, bank deposits under $10,000 do not require a report to the federal government. However there can be ironic vulnerabilities here as well. It looks suspicious if 50 deposits are made on a given day that total $9,999. Drug smugglers, believing that a profile is in effect that targets younger men in late model cars driving on US 90, may use as couriers older women in older cars taking back roads.
Another threshold involves repetition and familiarity. Rotation is a device favored by some violators. For example, prostitutes may move frequently to new cities making it more difficult for police to identify them. Those interested in thwarting or avoiding surveillance share information such as where the hidden cameras and police radar traps are and how to identify unmarked police vehicles. Cell phones and websites have made this easier. Here discovery and avoidance are linked. Being able to identify a police car doesn’t necessarily prevent visual surveillance, but it does permit adjusting behavior so as not to call additional attention to oneself.
3. Piggy Back Moves
Here surveillance is directly faced rather than avoided. A control is evaded or information protected by accompanying or being attached to a legitimate subject or object. An important context for this form is entrance and exit controls. For example, systems requiring an access card can sometimes be thwarted by walking or, in the case of a parking structure, driving quickly behind a person with legitimate access. The fact that the door or gate must remain open long enough to permit the legitimate entry may offer a window for others. This nicely illustrates the ironic vulnerability of control systems in which there is exchange across borders. The need to open creates the possibility for illegitimate as well as legitimate entrance and egress.
Steganography, which permits hiding information in art, documents and other items in related form, is freely available and easy to use on the Internet. It draws on conventionally communicated computer information to bootleg other information only available to someone with the appropriate software (e.g., hiding messages in digital pictures). The viewer without the software sees only what is immediately visible and will have not reason to be suspicious.
4. Switching Moves.
In settings involving testing, certification and validation, an authentic result is transferred to someone or some thing to which it does not apply. While accurate in what it purports to show, the accuracy is misplaced. Consider test substitution, whether in the “soft” college environment of the large class room or the more controlled testing centers. The Educational Testing Service is on guard for substitute test takers (Newsweek Nov. 11, 1996). Assuming the test was taken without cheating, the results are valid in assessing the score of the actual test taker, but not the person they purport to represent. Insurance companies also seek to identify healthy substitutes who take medical exams for persons whose pre-existing conditions would exclude them from coverage.
A common form of switching involves certification transference: A ticket, entry card, license, entitlement or identity marker belonging to someone else is used. South Africa provides an unusual example. There, welfare payments can be obtained from ATM machines. The recipient enters the correct information into the computer and offers a thumb print for verification. A colleague reported one enterprising family that collected welfare payments long after an elderly relative had died. They cut off her thumb and continued to use it.
In a urine drug test, "clean" urine, from an acquaintance or commercially purchased, may be substituted for one's own. In an extreme example, an Olympic competitor passed his drug test twice, but the tests also revealed that he was pregnant! Using a catheter, the athlete had inserted urine from his pregnant, drug-free girl friend and then passed it back as the temporarily duped observers watched.
One response to late night roadblocks in search of drunk drivers is to have the driver who has been drinking switch places with someone who hasn’t been drinking. As a condition of sentencing, those arrested for drunk driving may agree to have a breathalyzer attached to their car's ignition. The alcohol ignition interlock prevents a car from starting until the driver blows into a funnel-like device that analyzes the alcohol content of the driver's breath. For the car to start the alcohol level must be below 0.05% weight by volume. Beyond avoidance (e.g., using a different car), the interlock initially could be tricked by having a friend breathe into the device, or through a temporal switch by using air from a balloon filled with air before drinking.
5. Distorting Moves
Distorting moves manipulate the surveillance collection process such that, while offering technically valid results, the inferences drawn from a test or inspection about performance, behavior or attribute are invalid. The technical data do not mean what they appear to say. This contrasts with switching in which the socially misleading inference involves identity. Consider a tactic used by some data entry clerks who are judged by the number of keystrokes they enter. At the end of the day some workers simply held down one key for a few minutes. This generated the impression of greater productivity than was actually the case. The actual number of keystrokes was accurately assessed but, given how they were produced, the result is not socially meaningful.
A way of beating the polygraph involves stepping on a tack hidden in one's shoe in response to initial factual questions (e.g., regarding name and age). These are used to create a presumed truthful baseline for comparison to answers to later incriminating questions. Meditation and pills are other means intended to distort results.
Eating peanuts or sucking on a penny before taking a breath analyzer test are said to distort results. Drug tests results may be distorted by having bleach on one’s hand when generating a urine sample, by taking medication or by eating certain confounding foods.
A more subtle form involves conversational ploys in which a surveillance agent is duped into believing that a machine is invalid. Consider the story told me by a Russian. A family coming back from a picnic is stopped by police and the driver fails a breathalyzer test. He protests, "That's impossible, I haven't been drinking, your machine must be broken. Please try it on my wife." She also fails the test. The man gets even more insistent that the machine is broken and says, "Please try it on my young daughter." She is tested and also fails. At which point the police officer, doubting his own machine, lets the man go. The man later remarks to his wife, "That was really a good idea to let her drink with us.”
6. Blocking Moves
Blocking and masking, the next two forms, call explicit attention to the communicative aspects of surveillance. Surveillors desire to read the signals given off by their subjects. With blocking, subjects seek to physically block access to the communication or, if unable or unwilling to do that, to render it (or aspects of it such as the identity, appearance or location of the communicator) unusable.
The Faraday cage, which encapsulates space in metal or a metallic net, blocks electronic transmissions. (There is even a portable version available for travelers.) Shoplifters may seek to block the sensors for electronically tagged consumer goods by using a metallic shield which prevents signal transmission (e.g., a large shopping bag with a familiar logo conceals within it a second bag lined with aluminum or duct tape). A move reflecting the ironic vulnerability of locks requiring keys involves using a portable device to desensitize the sensor in the same fashion as the checkout stand does.
A means of stopping eavesdropping via the traditional telephone was to turn the dial and hold it in place by inserting a pencil, effectively blocking the microphone within the phone. Playing loud music and whispering accomplishes the same goal. Caller-ID in most states can now be stopped by line or per-call blocking. Those making credit card phone calls in public places, such as airports, are advised to shield the numbers when they are entered to prevent theft of access codes by lurkers, some with binoculars who may not even be seen by the caller.
Commercially available technical means such as 900 numbers that forward calls, and then immediately erase the source of the call, are a way of avoiding telephone number identification systems. Anonymous re-mailers who forward computer messages stripped of their sender's address also stop identification.
Another form of blocking is wearing a veil or loose fitting, buttoned up clothes that reveal little about the physical appearance of the person within. In response to the phenomena of covert “upskirt and down blouse” videotaping, one policewomen reports always wearing pants to the mall. A woman who was secretly videotaped in her home reports, “I sometimes take a shower with my clothes on.”
Generic ski or Halloween masks worn by bank robbers and the helmets with visors or masks worn in some protest demonstrations, whether by police or demonstrators, are other examples. Writing in invisible ink is a familiar children's game and it has its' adult counterparts, although these may rely on bad science. Thus, a bank robber was identified and arrested in spite of rubbing lemon juice on his face because he had been told that it would prevent the surveillance camera from creating a clear picture.
Situations in which those watching are unaware that specific blocking has occurred can be contrasted with those where the fact of blocking is obvious. In the latter situations, information is communicated but it is useless. The encryption of communications is an example. Encrypted communications are easy to intercept but meaningless absent decryption. A “photo flash deflector” fluid which blocks the photographing of a license plate became available soon after systems for monitoring red light runners appeared. Some “fuzz busters” sends white noise back to a police radar gun producing a blank reading.
In contrast to the real time protection of information is destruction of it after the fact. An advertisement for “Spy paper” reports that it, “looks and feels like high quality notepad paper yet dissolves completely in a matter of seconds when it comes into contact with water.” The delete command along with a “wiper program” are available for computer entries to be sure they can be eliminated, although as Oliver North discovered this does nothing for backup copies elsewhere in the system (Tower, 1987). Those disposing of hard drives are advised to first purge them of their data. “Piano roll” faxes have to be carefully destroyed as these contain records of what has been received.
7. Masking Moves
Masking involves blocking in that the original information is shielded, but it goes beyond it to involve deception with respect to the identity, status and/or location/locatability of the person or material of surveillance interest. Specifically, masking shares with one form of blocking the goal of eliminating genuine identifying marks (e.g., by removing serial numbers or wearing gloves or a generic mask) but it differs from them by replacing what is blocked with information intended to mislead, such as using a disguise or fake serial numbers. It also differs because such blocking without masking may call attention to itself (e.g., a car with no license plate number, a weapon with the serial number removed, an anonymous email) while masking does not (e.g., altered numbers, a pseudonymous email address). As a result of masking, the surveillance mechanism operates as intended but the information collected is misleading and useless. Surveillors may not even realize that this has happened.
Efforts to disguise identity, whether involving wigs, died hair, elevator shoes, padded clothing, plastic surgery or fake documents, fit here and again contrast with generic give-away forms such as a mask. The film Personal Record, in which a woman wears a wig and uses fake documents to create a seemingly untraceable paper trail in committing a crime of revenge, is a nice example.
Masking can be seen in giving a false social security number or name. There is a rock group called “Gary Marx and the Sisters of Mercy”. The lead singer Marc Pairman uses the name Gary Marx. Not wanting to be outdone, I sometimes use the name Marc Pairman when a website requests my name. I also have supermarket cards with the names Karl Marx, Groucho Marx and Georg Simmel.
Remote computer entries, whether taking or sending information, by using another's identification and password, are a nice example of masking. Surveillance agents may not know there has been deception. The computer security system accurately records transactions and the use of a particular entry code from a given machine, but it cannot determine whether the entrant is the person or organization it technically appears to be, absent additional means such as biometric identification and video recording. Controllers concerned with identity verification/authentication must determine 1) is this a valid identity, authentication or access code and, if so, 2) is this the authorized user?
8. Breaking Moves
The goal of breaking moves is to render the surveillance device inoperable. However, as with blocking moves, surveillors are likely to discover this. Breaking moves are the crudest form of neutralization. Examples include disabling electrical and phone lines, spray painting a video monitor, and immobilizing a video monitor by aiming a laser pointer at it. When radar location detection devices were first attached to police cars, so that supervisors would be able to know where officers were, some officers in Boston responded by simply smashing the device with their clubs. More subtly, the system also was defeated by driving beyond city limits and entering at a different point. Leaving the system in this way caused the monitor to lose track of the police car. A male guard dog may be neutralized with a tranquilizer dart, mace, poisoned food or a female dog in heat.
Those under judicial supervision may remove electronic location monitors. Ironically, the effort to interrupt a signal itself becomes a signal. However, this must be noted and acted upon. In a tragic case, an abusive spouse sentenced to home confinement simply took off the device, went to his former wife's home, and killed her. This was on a weekend. Although a message about his removal of the device was sent, there was no one on duty until Monday to learn of his action.
9. Refusal Moves
The above strategies suggest that any move away from participation on the terms desired by those watching can be seen as a kind of refusal. A more extreme form of refusal is to “just say no” and ignore the surveillance. This surprisingly simple response is not as common as one might expect. Partly this reflects deference to authority and fear of sanctioning or denial of service. Politeness and the desire to avoid conflict, or be labeled a troublemaker, also may be factors.
It is now routine in some large retail chains to ask all customers for their phone numbers, whether they pay with cash or with a credit card. In response, the individual can refuse to give any number or say, “I don’t have a phone." Beyond increasing consumer autonomy, this prevents surveillor access to the rich array of personal and census tract data that can be linked to phone numbers and then, using powerful "data dredging techniques," analyzed in relation to the record of bar-coded purchases.
Refusal can be specific to certain kinds of information. For example, while many persons do not realize this, the Privacy Act of 1974 restricts the collection of social security numbers to a limited number of governmental purposes and offers no mandate at all for unrelated private sector uses. Yet that restriction hardly stops private organizations from requesting the number.
As part of the employment process at a large state university, I was asked to sign a form swearing that I was a loyal citizen and supported the laws of the state and country. I also was asked if I had ever belonged to various political groups. The latter question seemed inconsistent with the First Amendment protection of the former that I had just indicated I supported. With more curiosity than trepidation, I ignored the second question and waited. But as with so much on bureaucratic forms, this was overlooked and nothing happened.
The surveillance also might be ignored not on principle, but on the assumption that the risks of being identified are small and the risk worth the gain. Drug smugglers flood borders with many couriers carrying small amounts knowing that most will get through.
Requests to participate in public opinion surveys, whether over the phone, in person, or by computer or mail, also may be refused. Indeed, there is evidence that refusal rates have been increasing. With respect to unwanted phone requests, whether for interviews or sales pitches, one response is to say, "This isn't a good time for me to talk, but if you give me your home phone number I will call you back late tonight".
Refusal is a broad term which may mean literally ignoring a request for information. But it may also involve feigned participation in which expectations about how one is to participate are violated. Here masking can be seen as a subtype of refusal. Consider, for example, offering false information. This can involve checking the wrong column for income or indicating a preference for golf when one's preference is really for cooking. According to some research, 30% or more of website visitors admit providing incorrect information. Changing the spelling of one's name or middle initial permits tracking the solicitation networks through which names are sold and also might impede database matching.
The above cases are ones in which providing the information is, in principle, optional. There are other cases where it is required, but is refused as an act civil disobedience. For example, two marines refused to give DNA samples because they did not trust the government to only use it for identification purposes in case of their death (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 27, 1995). Apart from organizational demands, individuals also may avoid certain medical tests or DNA analysis because they do not want this on their insurance and other records (see Alpert, this issue).
10. Cooperative Moves
One of the findings from research on white collar crime is the frequency of insider perpetration and cooperation with violators beyond the organization (Rosoff, Pontell, & Tillman, 2002). Insiders often have access to, and knowledge of, control systems and this knowledge can be tempting. Thus, it is not surprising that efforts to resist surveillance sometimes involve collusion with surveillors. A market for information and its’ distortion is created and controllers possessing the information have an illicit product to sell. Or this may be done for personal reasons as in the early days of computerized records when a police chief simply erased the record of his son’s drunk driving arrest.
Given the complexity of the social controller's job (e.g., the often vast and dispersed activities subject to control) and various restrictions and constraints on them (e.g., applicable laws and organizational policies), social controllers also might need the cooperation of those they are charged with controlling (e.g., Sykes, 1971). This can result in what Marx (1981) terms non-enforcement, that is, controllers exchange a resource they have for some form of cooperation from the controlled.
Cooperative moves seem particularly characteristic of control systems where agents are poorly motivated or indifferent, feel fatigued, and are under-rewarded. They also may sympathize with those they are to surveil. This can lead to the routinization of surveillance, lessened attention and taking action only when it cannot be avoided. Moreover, the agents may cooperate with those watched not to get involved. Consider, for example, (1996) finding that more than one million persons managed to live illegally in Moscow in the mid-1980s because illegal residents of apartment complexes would routinely bribe superintendents or guards who might otherwise inform on them. In short, trying to motivate and control first-line surveillance agents in low visibility field settings is a major issue for organizations.
Cooperative moves also may be ideologically motivated. For example, given ideological disagreements with authority and sympathy for those controlled, some welfare workers bend rules and look the other way in the face of system rules and procedures seen to be unreasonable. Gilliom (2001) finds a pattern of widespread, if unorganized, resistance on the part of welfare caseworkers in response to a new and very comprehensive computer monitoring program of those on assistance.
11. Counter-surveillance Moves
These moves are of a different order than the moves discussed above. They involve turning the tables and surveilling those who are doing the surveillance. Knowing that targets of surveillance may respond in kind also can be a factor limiting or inhibiting the initial use of surveillance. The extent to which there has been a "democratization of surveillance” is an important topic. Certainly there is greater equality in access to and use of surveillance technologies today than in much of recorded history. However, we are certainly far from equivalence here. The kind of technologies that are developed, apart from who has them, is also much affected by inequality in resources. Yet many techniques are inexpensive, easy to use, and widely available.
If counter-measures uncover questionable practices, which are then publicized, it also may lead to their moderation or cessation. This situation overlaps discovery moves. It can lead to deceptive actions taken to ensnare surveillance agents and document discreditable surveillance. A classic case, that certainly must have had ripple effects on police behavior, is that of a Jewish Defense League informant and later defendant, who tape-recorded highly incriminating conversations with his police handler. This came out in court after the police officer committed perjury in denying that he threatened the informant and then to his great surprise, heard his tape-recorded threats played back (Dershowitz, Silverglate, & Baker, 1976).
The results of counter-surveillance, if incriminating, may be used to compromise
those doing the initial surveillance. Those controlling surveillance systems may be seduced, blackmailed or otherwise coerced into cooperation in return for the silence of those they originally watched.
I have suggested some concepts that can help organize responses to privacy invasions. Yet as a Yiddish expression holds, “for instance isn’t proof. A number of questions involving the patterning and correlates of neutralization moves, differences between acceptable and questionable forms, the generalizability of the forms and understanding cycles of surveillance, neutralization and counter-neutralization can be identified for more systematic research.
How does neutralization relate to attitudes towards authority, politics and privacy? The pattern likely transcends conventional left-right distinctions. How are these forms of resistance socially distributed? The social class implications appear distinctive. Resistance to control and domination is usually approached as a response of the poor and powerless (Scott, 1985). However, responses to new forms of organizational surveillance are more evenly distributed and much resistance appears positively (rather than inversely) associated with class position. The privileged who participate most fully in conventional society (e.g., with respect to communications, computer uses, credit cards, and consumption) are prominent in resistance. Orwell’s (1990) dystopia is prescient here, as those who were watched most closely were the more privileged. Their greater exposure to organizational demands for personal information and greater resources enhances the likelihood and multiplicity of forms of resistance.
There is a spatial and relational geography to the protection and revelation of personal information that could be usefully explored (Margulis, this issue; Marx, 2001; Stinchcombe, 1963). There could be mapping of the ecology of places where information has greater protection, for either cultural reasons, as in the sanctuary offered by a church, or in no (or fewer) questions asked places, such as frontiers, ports, vice and skid row areas of cities and some isolated places (e.g., Key West). Relationships also serve to contour the perceived need for information protection. Notable examples include the legal protections of much medical, legal and religious communication and the confidentiality of spousal communication. There may be “natural” limitations (until a technology changes this) such as those involving the senses (e.g., the traditional protection of darkness) or environmental limitations such as dead spaces where radio transmission is poor or blocked. This mapping also could have a temporal dimension, such as special periods (e.g., time-outs and times of holiday license), when there may be a greater tendency to look the other way.
How can legitimate and illegitimate forms of resistance be differentiated and how might they be connected? While there will be some common social forms and processes, the moral distinction is central. We can contrast legitimate forms of resistance to unwarranted privacy invasions with actions that, although protecting personal information, are morally indefensible, as with the discovery, masking and blocking moves of serious crime. There is an important distinction between neutralizing the unwarranted surveillance of legitimate activities in which symbolic protest motivations are important as ends in themselves, as against neutralizing legitimate surveillance as a means to other illegitimate ends.
Criteria are needed which would permit us to speak of “good” and “bad,” or appropriate and inappropriate, efforts to neutralize the collection of personal data. Beyond the easy contrasts provided by extremes in actual behavioral patterns (e.g., a person who uses encryption as part of a serious crime or who seeks to destroy fingerprints to avoid prosecution vs. the dismantling of “cookies” implanted without consent on one’s computer by a website), how should efforts to neutralize surveillance be judged?
Elsewhere I have argued that the ethics of any given form of the new surveillance can be evaluated by differentiating the means of data collection, the context and conditions under which data are gathered, and uses or goals. I suggest 29 questions embodying a cluster of values respecting the dignity and autonomy of the individual, trust and community (Marx 1998). The more the questions can be answered in a way affirming the underlying values, the more justified surveillance is. Conversely the more answers to these questions negatively reflect on these values, the more justified are neutralization efforts.
There are research questions about how generalizable this classification of moves is. For example, does it apply to other contexts of information discovery and protection beyond the individual relative to organizations considered here, such as in the management of stigma (Goffman, 1963) or the espionage and counter-espionage activities of organizations relative to each other? Can some of the same concepts (e.g., discovery, blocking) be usefully applied to those engaged in surveillance, whether in the private sector, government or in interpersonal relations, as they in turn attempt to neutralize the efforts of those responding to surveillance, or do we need additional concepts?
Can the categories be usefully applied to efforts to neutralize the imposition of information on persons, as well as taking it from them? I have focused primarily on the latter, but another component of privacy is crossing personal borders and invading personal space in order to impose something upon a person (e.g., loud music, cell phone conversations in public, cooking smells, subliminal messages, advertisements) without their consent and sometimes even knowledge. How do efforts to protect against these forms of privacy invasion relate to efforts to stop information from being taken from the person? Are the same categories useful or are additional ones required? What does the mute button on the TV remote have in common with encryption?
There also are research questions about how neutralization moves, that expand zones of “insulation from observability” (Coser 1961), relate to other forms of resistance to organizational power (Brook & Boal, 1995; Jermier, Knights, & Nord, 1995; Scott, 1985, 1990). For example, what is the impact of individual responses? That is, under what conditions are they effective in meeting material needs and enhancing the individual’s sense of dignity and autonomy? Under what conditions do such individual actions additively result in unplanned social change, apart from any formal political pressure or legal or policy changes? When do they serve as a kind of consciousness raising and pre-politicization in which individual resistance eventually leads to more organized political challenges, as against simply remaining individualistic responses that inhibit such organized challenges (e.g., compare the contrasting views in Gilliom, 2001; Martin, 1993; McCann & March, 1996; Scott, 1985, 1990).
Surprisingly, social researchers who generally rush to study protest groups have tended to ignore the social dynamics, impact, and strategies of organizations that seek to protect privacy and challenge surveillance (e.g., the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and groups focusing on particular forms such as junk mail, telemarketing, medical, genetic, workplace and social security privacy). Such groups seek to directly affect political processes, as well as offering information and resources to the public.
A mapping of the organizational forms of resistance to the indiscriminate collection and use of personal information could begin by analysis of the many privacy groups, privacy media, privacy-enhancing services and tools, and consumer and legal resources found on the “Privacy links” web page of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (http://www.privacyrights.org).
Of equal interest would be studies of how organizations involved in surveillance and personal data collection activities, and groups representing them such as the Direct Marketing Association, the American Association of Manufacturers, the American Chamber of Commerce and various banking, insurance and credit card companies, promote their activities and respond to challenges. Under what conditions do individual forms of resistance, such as the reaction to the Lotus Marketplace and related controversies (e.g., the Intel Pentium III chip with its’ unique identifier) lead to retreat rather than intensified public relations and lobbying efforts? In the 1994 Lotus case, an effort to sell millions of names and address was met with a massive public outcry that ironically was mobilized by email messages (Gurak, 1997).
Gabriel (1999), in noting the hubris, pathos (and we might had bathos) surrounding Foucault’s combining the Catholic omnipresent eye of God with the Protestant will to sterile efficiency sought with modern control efforts, observes “that our lives are controlled by diverse forces operating both on us and through us cannot be doubted. That our lives can be reduced to these forces in a totalitarian gloom runs against what history has to tell us” (p. 193).
As the examples of neutralization suggest, the human spirit valiantly expresses itself in the face of the machine. It frequently proves richer than the possibilities anticipated and built into the latter. However, victory may be short lived. While the present analysis is static, in reality the processes are fluid and dynamic. That is, just as new means of information collection can lead to innovations in resistance, those in the surveillance business respond to neutralization efforts with their own innovations that are then responded to in a re-occurring pattern.
This is not to deny the greater power of employers, manufacturers, merchants, landlords, professionals, parents and state agents, such as welfare workers, teachers, police, and prison guards, over those subordinate to them. Issues of power and control are central to the kinds of surveillance that become social issues. Yet power is rarely a zero-sum game. Beyond varying degrees of normative constraint on power holders, power is not unlimited because it is often rooted in interdependency and occurs on a broad and decentralized scale. In informational-conflict settings in democratic societies, the advantage of technological and other strategic surveillance advances are often short-lived and contain ironic vulnerabilities.
Neutralization is a dynamic adversarial social dance involving strategic moves and counter-moves. It has the quality of an endless chess game. This emergent phenomenon is well worth studying as a conflict interaction process. Of particular interest here is escalation and "the see-saw principle" of military technology in which new developments are balanced by counter-developments. Consider for example the appearance of the “unshredder,” a computerized document reconstruction process that appeared in response to the initial strip-cut type of shredder.
This cat-and-mouse reciprocity raises questions such as: How are neutralization and counter-neutralization techniques discovered, chosen, combined and diffused? Useful in studying this would be the “how to do it” literature made possible by a free market and free press (with an enormous boost from the Internet) and communications of the surveillance industry. What are the major “career paths” and “life cycles” of techniques of surveillance and neutralization? Does the lag time vary by the properties of the technique and characteristics of the players, by resource and skill factors, or by the perceived importance of success and cost of failure?
In summary, I have noted factors encouraging compliance with and subverting the vast expansion in the collection of personal information. I have identified 11 behavioral techniques of neutralization intended to subvert the collection of personal information and some issues for research. In spite of doomsday scenarios with respect to the death of privacy, in societies with liberal democratic economic and political systems, the initial advantages offered by technological developments may be weakened by their own ironic vulnerabilities and, in Poe’s (1967, p. 153) term, “human ingenuity.” This is certainly not to argue for complacency because power imbalances (both legitimate and illegitimate) are central to a majority of surveillance situations. It is, however, to ask that our vigilance be informed by careful empirical research and analysis.
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