Foreword: Technocrime
Something’s Happening Here and We Are There

Foreword to Stéphane Leman-Langlois (ed.) Technocrime, Wilan, 2008.

These remarks draw from Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology, University of Chicago, forthcoming; and "The Engineering of Social Control: Intended and Unintended Consequences" in J. Byrne and D. Rebovich, The New Technology of Crime, Law and Social Control. Monsey, N.Y.: Criminal Justice Press.

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He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.
        —Sir Francis Bacon

As long as the genuine security problem exists, there will be persons whose imagination will be set boiling with excited apprehension.
        —E. Shils

Of course I'll not deceive her I'm not there, I'm gone It's all about confusion and I cry for her.
        —Bob Dylan, I’m Not There

As a good multi-tasking modern, I finished reading this cornucopian volume while watching the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There. I was struck by their parallels and the clarity of the haze surrounding both. The topics are enigmatic and rich in contradiction and paradox, resisting efforts at didactic, fixed and linear interpretation. At the same time there are abundant re-occurring social patterns and processes. Therein lays (and at time lies as well) their appeal and challenge.

The ever optimistic scholar, whether studying the work of the artist or the social impact of computer technology, seeks the light beyond the fog and the truth(s) behind the masks. The contributors to this timely volume find both.

In the case of computers and society, we know a lot is happening here, but what is it? One is even led to suspect, with Gertrude Stein, that maybe there is no there there because there is here, or that there is no past or future because they are ever present—as a result of improved record keeping, simulation and prediction.

Yet, however varied, the realities of a multi-perspectival world do not prevent the authors from finding bedrocks of meaning, structure and process striated throughout the heterogeneity of techno-police and techno-crime .

In the beginning there are the questions. These authors identify the fundamental issues and carefully strain them through an informing mesh of social theory and empirical research. This pioneering tapestry in progress is necessary reading for students interested in the myriad and shifting ties between technology and law and society, social control, criminology and deviance.

Consistent with the social constructionist tenor of the volume, much of what readers will find here is conditioned by what they bring to the book. With that disclaimer, let me briefly note some approaches and themes that I found particularly resonate and worthy of continuing attention for researchers and practitioners. Among topics I will briefly consider: ways of conceptualizing the changes and alterations in border conditions, aggregation and disaggregation, system complexity and dynamics, rhetorical excesses, ironies and value conflicts and symbolic communication.

With respect to technology and social control it is clear that a great deal is happening here. This volume emphasizes techno-police and techno-crime. These are found within and contribute to contexts involving globalization, deterritorialization and the breaking, blurring, merging, morphing of traditional borders and the appearance of new barriers (whether spatial, geographical, juridical, organizational, functional or of the senses) 1.


In response to threats, risks, disasters, pandemics, fear and critical incidents, means based on profiling, pattern recognition, transactional data, data-mining, embedded sensors/ambient intelligence, intercepts, satellites, passwords, spyware, biometrics, authentication, audit trails and target hardening are applied. There is an emphasis on prevention, pro-activity and preparedness. Cyberspace technologies and behaviours, by definition, alter our understanding of the borders of space, time, property, hierarchy, the person and national boundaries. They can also weaken, blur and reconfigure traditional borders between, as well as within, countries and across forms and subjects/targets of control.

Terms such as centralization-decentralization and center-periphery, the public and the private, privacy and openness can no longer be as easily applied. We see a new kind of mobile total institution portaged by individuals in their bodies, minds and everyday activities as they radiate, communicate and behave, still in the shadow, but not in the physical presence of overseers.

New organizational forms related to the spread of a techno-control ethos stimulated by entrepreneurs, perceptions of shared threats and the use of the same tools (including the sharing of information) have profound implications for the traditional distinctions between public and private police, law enforcement and national security, the police and the military, operational and intelligence agencies, national and international law enforcement and local and international criminal activities and organizations.

Even when organizational borders remain intact, the behaviour of control agents appears to be increasingly similar, there appears to be an increase in joint operations and there is increased circulation of control agents across organizations.

Johnny Nhan and Laura Huey note this blurring of borders in describing the emergent network of private and public agencies concerned with cybercrime. Benoît Gagnon notes that in spite of (or perhaps because of) the transnational, non-spatial borders of cyberspace, governments seek to define it as national space analogous to geographical space.

The topic requires both disaggregation and aggregation. We need to disentangle the multiple dimensions frequently found with ideal types and to find ways of measuring these so their distribution and interrelations can be empirically documented and subject to hypothesizing.


Many of the articles admirably break the shifting worlds of technology, rules, control and violation into manageable analytic and empirically measurable bites. This is not matched by equivalent efforts at aggregation or the offering of middle range testable theories. However, given the newness of the topics, the richness and variety of the empirical, the relative weaknesses of our methods and the organization and values of social science, this is not surprising. Studying implementation, neutralization, counter-neutralization, displacement, escalation, evolution, devolution, atrophy, entropy, contraction and border changes must be central to inquiry.

In early 1960 Professor Erving Goffman observed that "for a nickel and a theory all you can get is a cup of coffee." A bit strong, but it is only after empirical inquires and unpacking the pieces that we know what to put back together and what needs to be explained. Most of the chapters in this volume adopt a systems approach that acknowledges the contextual interdependence of rule enforcers and rule violators. A systems approach can acknowledge the interaction of the technical and the social while helping avoid technological and social determinism.

Technology offers new resources to agents and subjects of social control who apply, and respond, in imaginative and unexpected ways. In conflict settings, new technologies almost invariably bring reciprocal responses. As Simmel observed, adversaries may come in many ways to resemble each other. (Coser 1956) This point can be easily missed when the topic is only approached in absolute moralistic terms of the good guys and the bad guys.

Rules and rule violations must be studied as an interaction process. The dynamic, "no final victory" quality of many control settings calls attention to game like qualities (note the parallel of cyberspace games to actual life and their intermingling noted in the article by Jennifer Whitson and Aaron Doyle). A systems approach encourages us to be cautious about claims for "independent" variables unsullied by their environments and to identify feedback processes and reciprocal influences.

Not so old, not so new

Yet loose systems of social orders (even as they have borders, histories, culture and social organization) are hardly hermetically sealed, nor do all variables (or inputs) count equally. As these articles make very clear, some things change even amidst stability and there are endless combinations of the age of both the bottles and the wine, depending on where one looks and where one chooses to draw the line between changes in degree and in kind.

There is need to locate the broad constants found in control settings, and within these, the major areas where variation and re-occurring forms and processes can be identified. But there is equivalent need to be alert for changes as suggested by the concepts mentioned above and to subject claims about radical change to empirical analysis.

Given the multiple goals of any complex organization or individual and their embedding in political, legal and social cultures, the conclusions from the articles by Frederic Lemieux, Jean-Paul Brodeur and Peter K. Manning that little has changed re the broad goals of national security, crime prevention or crime solving and local police routines is not surprising. But that does not mean impacts do not occur elsewhere (e.g., as with styles of work, efficiency, priorities among goals or in popular culture), nor that at some point small changes do not cumulate into something more (even as this can be hard to see because change is gradual and we are a part of what we study).

The continuing development and application of technologies that extend the senses and are of low visibility, involuntarily, remotely and often softly applied, cheaper, integrated and automated, abstract the rich variability of local contexts into general categories involve real time data flows, the folding of surveillance into routine activities, immediate links between data collection and action and categorical suspicion are hardly insignificant.

A dynamic view of technology and social control can encourage a historical perspective, attention to the careers of techniques, rules and violations and awareness of the possibility of cycles. If I had a dime for every supposed empirical trend that turned out to be merely a blip or to represent a lag factor or a cyclical process, I would not travel coach class to academic meetings. Our research must be continually in process, responding to changes in the game and moves of the players.

Attention to the complexity these authors document can counter the rhetorical excesses of control entrepreneurs and doomsday prophets. The commercialization and privatization of crime control too easily leads to exaggerating a technology’s power, overstating risks and marketing fear. The verbiage collapsing a technology’s potential (as perhaps demonstrated in pristine laboratory settings, even if the data are made available to outside researchers) with the smudgier world of real applications pollutes public discourse.

This book offers a needed reality check in finding that claims—whether about the revolutionary implications of the technologies for policing and national security or for converting dystopian visions to reality, or the takeover of the world by international criminals are greatly exaggerated.

Rhetorical excess and the failure of the best made plans have many sources including those Stéphane Leman-Langlois suggests in the introduction such as dysfunctional technologies, incompetent users, lower priority and a high number of targets. The gaps (and even chasms) between stated intentions and the fullness of outcomes may also reflect self-serving entrepreneurial spin (or bullshit), outright prevarication, selective and misperception, wish-fulfillment, paranoia, stupidity and tunnel vision, lack of motivation, system incompatibilities and the inability to anticipate system complexities, contingencies and confounding factors.

Value conflicts (even assuming we can agree on what abstract values mean in practice) are an additional limiting factor. We can rarely have it all and obtaining more of one value often implies less of another. Consider for example the tensions between:

  • Liberty and order
  • Communalism and individualism
  • The security offered by hard, presumably fail-safe, no choice engineering solutions vs. the need and advantages of freely chosen self-control in consensual settings
  • Aggregate (often statistical) rationality and efficiency against due process, justice, and fairness for each individual
  • Security and safety vs. cost, convenience and timeliness universalism (equality), standardization, elimination of discretion vs. particularism (differentiation) and the flexibility to respond to unique situations
  • The more personal information gathered, the greater the potential for feeling invaded and for unwanted control, yet more information may mean fewer mistakes and more individualized treatment which may be seen as fairer.
  • Automatic machine processing for reliability, consistency and fairness ("get the human out of the loop") vs. reliance on human judgment and review and the ability to better interpret contexts
  • Control as repression/domination/colonization/homogenization or as responsible management/oversight/care/guidance
  • Protection through isolation and exclusion vs. rehabilitation through inclusion
  • Anti-theft barriers designed to keep others out (or inmates within) may prevent the contained from leaving when there is an emergency such as a fire
  • The desire to be noticed and the desire to be left alone
  • Prevention (with uncertainty about whether an event would have occurred vs. response after the fact
  • Deterrence vs. apprehension
  • The control of, or access to, information as property or as a right
  • Publicity/visibility as accountability but also as deterrents to creativity, experimentation, civility and diplomacy
  • Freedom of expression and the avoidance of defamation/harassment/slander/irresponsible and mendacious speech, unwanted encroachments
  • Information control as central to selfhood, intimacy and group borders but also to hiding dishonesty, violations, conspiracies and the communication of distrust

Goals and results

Even when a tactic clearly "works" and the meaning of work is not at issue (e.g., who says it works and by what measurements and standards?), we must ask a series of questions such as, has the decision to apply it involved democratic and self-critical procedures? Are the means and goals ethical, as well as legal? Are there alternative means that would work as well, or better? What collateral costs and benefits may accompany a tactic (in the long, as well as the short run and for a variety of groups)? Without denying the seriousness of the problem a tactic is intended to address, are there times when it is better to do nothing?

Even when it clearly doesn’t work in an instrumental way, it may still serve other goals involving symbolic communication and be a statement about what an organization represents and what it wishes to say to an audience. 2

Both the means for, and the content of, communication can reflect political struggle. The meaning of a technology and any mandates about, or restrictions upon, its use must be sought beyond its objective specifications. We need to understand the political processes involved in its labelling and how control and violations (whether of self-serving malefactors who harm others or those with communal goals) are defined. Understanding linguistic conflicts over the appropriate analogy for a new form is central to this.

Consider the well known example of email. Is this most like a conversation in public, a post card or a first class letter or "is" it something else all together? How should we conceive offerings and emanations that are in a sense delivered (voluntarily?) by the person but collected by others (often without the subject’s knowledge—either because data collection has low visibility, being built into the process, or because of deception)? These may come through traditional borders such as the body, buildings, packages and clothes. Examples include brain (and other) electrical waves, heat and scent, biological waste, garbage and appearance including gait. What of the mosaic dossiers created from publicly available (as in accessible) sources? Are these public or private in a normative sense? Are they a form of property belonging to their originator or whomever gets in the data stream? Do they constitute a search? When should taking (or creating) them require informed consent or at least a warrant? The answer depends on how the context is socially defined beyond any objective aspects per se.

The book offers a useful case study of a major area where new technologies are being applied. Criminal justice differs from other institutional areas such as commerce, work, health care and education, because the human rights and non-consensual aspects are more pronounced as a result of government’s greater power (although this ironically, and of necessity, often comes with greater restrictions and citizen rights). Yet there are also parallels.

Issues of technology, rules and violations cut across institutional areas. This reflects structural universals involving the centrality of rules to social organization and behaviour (whether as conformity or deviance). It can also reflect fads and fashions.

Across social fields we increasingly see common technical control practices reflecting a society with attenuated tolerance for risk and with an emphasis on prevention. The methods often involve data presumed to be converted to information and knowledge.

As popularly seen the most media visible forms of new control have a "technologically" based "hard" material or engineering quality relying on recent developments in computerization, electronics, biochemistry, materials science and architecture under a legitimating halo of science. But contemporary control goes far beyond these to research tinged efforts at persuasion, seduction, manipulation and deception, whether involving interpersonal relations, advertising, political messages or education. 3 In his article on the changing meanings of privacy Stéphane Leman-Langlois suggests that given the benefits, offering personal information as a necessary condition for some advantage seems to many people to be a modest price to pay.

There are efforts to engineer behaviour in both a hard and soft sense through increased transparency, documentation and identification associated with suspicion, the use of predictive statistical models, the offering of rewards, and the encouragement of self-monitoring. 4. This occurs within a networked society of ambient and ubiquitous sensors in constant communication. Such a society continually asks, "who are you?" and protean identities are both asserted by, and imposed upon, individuals. It is also a society of mobility and location, asking, "where are you, where have you been and who else is there?" Consider the continuing trend toward rationalization of control and violation to ever more areas. As David Lyon observes with the modern state and economy there has been a vast proliferation of rules and standards for inclusion and exclusion. With this comes the need for greatly expanded inspections and the need to prove innocence (or at least eligibility) and new technologies and rules involving transparency and documentation. The reverse side of the fair allocation of benefits is the equivalent fair distribution of penalties which also requires enhanced penetration of civil society and crossing personal borders.

The new information technologies related to expanded and enhanced regulation, management and manipulation create new forms of violation and predation—whether on the part of authorities or citizens. David Brin, in arguing for greater equality in the application of technologies of visibility notes that the technologies can be applied bi-directionally, even as there is a pronounced formal tilt away from this favouring the more powerful (whether state agents, employers, merchants, or adults) and an informal tilt favouring males and dominant group members.

Yet the potential of turning control technologies against the controllers and elites more broadly (whether in search of accountability or in pursuit of more efficient means of predation) is one of the ironies that make this field so fascinating. A scene at the end of the film Chinatown nicely illustrates this. Jack Nicholson tries to determine how Faye Dunaway is related to a young woman in her family. At first Dunaway responds, "She's my sister," then "She's my daughter," and under Nicholson's grilling she continues to say, "She's my sister," then "She's my daughter." Finally, in response to Nicholson's demanding which it is, she replies, "Both," indicating an atypical relationship with her father. The non binary nature of that encounter illustrates a central contemporary social control theme involving the presence of the opposing trends this volume illustrates.

As several articles suggest the tools that deny liberty and facilitate predation can also be used to enhance liberty and security. We see many new ways to cross the borders of the person and the organization, but we also see a profusion of new technologies to guard against this and laws and policies limiting the use of technology. A decision to use any technology involves an implicit trade off between its advantages and disadvantages and forgoing those of other means. All tools have an (or many Achilles heels) and can be neutralized. For example high tech means of intercepting communication are of little help when couriers are used. A perfect DNA match under ideal collection and analysis conditions can only reveal an empirical correlation not legal guilt, intentions or how the sample got there. Consider also current trends involving both the hardening and the softening of social control. The case for the former is seen in a letter Huxley wrote to Orwell after the publication of 1984 (quoted in Grover, 1969):

Dear Mr. Orwell:

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World . The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for efficiency [and we can note seduction and fear—as viewed 60 years later].

The softening of control, particularly as applied domestically, fits well with contemporary democratic sensibilities. But rather than displacing, it exists alongside of, enhanced hard forms. While these may not be coercive in the traditional sense, they are in denying the actor any choice. The world is engineered in such a fashion that the resources and/or opportunity to do the wrong thing (or at least to not do what the more powerful do not want done—whether this involves the law, commerce or work) is absent. 5

Physically engineered environments such as improved locks, graffiti resistant building materials, biometric access means and the replacement of credit for cash are increasingly found along side of seductive efforts that can hardly be refused such as frequent shopper rewards, faster and more efficient processing (e.g., at airports or on toll roads) and sexy advertising role models and media product placement. For those in the control business this may appear as a win/win situation --either the ability to violate rules is made impossible or individuals are socialized and manipulated such that they make the choices desired by those with the technology and authority. This of course leaves the question of when is a choice "really" a choice begging. 6

Both Orwell and Huxley continue to apply, if in qualified form, since reality is usually more complicated than the simplifications which words offer –whether in fiction or the ideal types of the social inquirer. 7 But in addition, in noting the complexities and the screw ups and absurdities that may accompany technical, usually acontextual, control efforts into complex and dynamic systems, Franz Kafka can’t be ignored. 8 Nor can William Gibson or Philip K. Dick, who anticipated so many contemporary themes in their writing (e.g., the latter’s use of prevention as expressed in the film Minority Report based on his short story).

The search for technical solutions to social problems (even given the variability in how these are defined) is fundamental to our ambivalent age. We both welcome technology and fear it. The basic issue is not with the implied effort to improve –something reflecting the highest aspirations of our reaching civilization. Rather the concern is with the narrowing of focus that may accompany this and inequality with respect to how problems are defined and resources for solutions are allocated. We must avoid mechanical solutions that are not accompanied by asking why some individuals break the rules and how social organization may encourage social problems.

Stand-alone technical solutions (increasingly privatized and focusing on the individual) seek to by-pass the need to create a society in which there is communal responsibility and in which individuals act responsibly as a result of voluntary commitment to the rules, not because they have no choice, or only out of fear of reprisals. Emphasis on the latter can encourage social neglect and more problems, leading to calls for more intensive and extensive reliance on technology and more rules, in a seemingly endless self-reinforcing and self-defeating spiral.

There is little room left for political debate or negotiation or time for reflection on broad consequences when technical weapons are drawn too quickly and accompanied by the belief that the means are neutral, the goals universal and the opposition personifies unadulterated evil. Technological controls, presumably being science based, are justified as valid, objective, neutral, universal, consensual and fair. In the best of all possible worlds they can be. Yet we need to be mindful of the fact that tools and results are socially created and interpreted (and thus potentially disputable) 9 and exist in dynamic interdependent systems where interests may conflict, inequality is often present and where full impacts are difficult to anticipate. The critical inquiry and humility expressed by the authors in this volume are as needed as are innovation and experimentation.


Coser, L. (1956), The Functions of Group Conflict. New York: The Free Press.

Dupont, B. 2004, "La Technicisation du Travail Policier: Ambivalences et Contradicitons Internes" Criminologie, 37, (1), p. 107-126.

Marx, G. (2006), "Soft Surveillance: The Growth of Mandatory Voluntarism in Collecting Personal Information." in T. Monahan, Surveillance and Security. New York: Taylor and Routledge.

Nogala, D (1995) "The Future Role of Technology in Policing." in J.P. Brodeur (ed.), Comparison in Policing: An International Perspective (191-210). Aldereshot: Avebury.

Shils, Edward (1956), The Torment of Secrecy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Grover (1969), Letters of Aldous Huxley. Chatto & Windus.

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  1. Among some related broad terms for characterizing various aspects of contemporary controls in the vast literature on the topic: the panopticon, the gaze, superpanopticon, post-panopticon, synopticon, banopticon, surveillance society, the new surveillance, maximum security society, high policing, securitization, viewer society, surveillance creep, soft cage and glass cage. Or consider computer related concepts such as cyberspace, digitalization, dataveillance, miniaturization, encryption and decryption, virtual, simulation, codes, networks, integrated information systems and surveillant assemblage.

  2. Consider the interesting topic of tactics that “work” but only because of deception on the part of the agent. One of the justifications for the polygraph is that if people are conned into thinking it works then they will be truthful. The same is claimed for the deterrent effect of video cameras without film or that are never reviewed. But, aside from the ethical issues around control via deception, if the deception is discovered it may serve to delegitimate other truthful claims.

  3. This of course raises the issue of what is a modern technology. Here it refers to a strategic application of means to ends involving some pragmatic theory of why this should work (whether it has a tangible material base is thus irrelevant). The controls of interest are “technologically” based, but what is a technology? Are magic and prayer technologies? The pragmatic empirical justification for most current control techniques contrasts with other sources of legitimation such as role relationships, tradition, the supernatural and unabashed power. Given the issues around definition, measurement and interpretation there is much room for self and other deception in concluding that a modern tactic does work. In 1995, Detlef Nogala chronicled emerging “techno-police” trends in the U.S. and Germany and suggested a way to systematize these based largely on their intended function. He used the term broadly to refer to all police “polices, strategies, tactics” based on the capacities of advanced technologies. That leaves undefined just what an advanced technology is. His examples primarily involve what Byrne and Rebovich (2007) refer to as “hard” technologies in contrast to “soft” information based means. But one can also apply those terms to direct coercion vs. tactics that are deceptive, manipulative and relatively passive, non-invasive and of low visibility, not requiring the subject’s cooperation or those in which subjects voluntarily cooperate (see note 6).

  4. For the latter engineered cases consider efforts to educate and help citizens as seen in anti-drunk driving advertizing campaigns, the creation of designated driver systems, signs indicating one’s auto speed, and devices for monitoring alcohol level. The effort to create a sense of social responsibility through neighborhood community policing activities can also be seen as soft engineering.

  5. Some basic forms here are target removal, target devaluation, target insulation, offender weakening or incapacitation, exclusion and offense/offender/target identification.

  6. The issues and trade offs from order sought by hard and soft control, coercion and deception, force and manipulation or seduction, threat and socialization are profound indeed. One approach is in Marx 2006. Coercion is at least honest. But in a mannered society valuing the dignity and liberty of the individual, voluntarism and consensus, it is seen as less desirable and even primitive.

  7. Benoit Dupont (2004) notes the limitations on both the Orwellian and a techno-optimism perspective to capture the ambiguities and contradictions in applying technology to police work.

  8. Consider the bizarre encounters of travelers deemed as suspicious by the Homeland Security Agency who are on “no fly lists” and who have trouble finding out why they are on the list and in having their names removed.

  9. That meanings are socially created does not of course mean that all meanings are equal with respect to logic, empirical support or morality.
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