Varieties of Personal Information as Influences on Attitudes Toward Surveillance

In The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson, editors (University of Toronto Press, 2006). I am grateful to them and to David Altheide, Albrecht Funk, Richard Leo, Glenn Muschert, Jeff Ross and David Shulman and for helpful comments. An earlier version was delivered at the meetings of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, Tempe 2003.

Back to Main Page  |  Bibliography  |  Notes


By Gary T. Marx


For it is a serious thing to have been watched.


We all radiate something curiously intimate when

we believe ourselves to be alone."


—E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread


“You ought to have some papers to show who
   you are." The police officer advised me.


"I do not need any paper. I know who I
     am," I said.


"Maybe so. Other people are also
     interested in knowing who you are."


—B. Traven, The Death Ship


Social organization is increasingly based on technologies which, with laser-like focus and sponge-like absorbency, root out and give meaning to personal data. Fortunately there is now a growing literature looking at broad causes, forms, processes, policies and consequences of our move toward a surveillance society.1 In contrast, several decades ago emerging large scale computer systems drew only modest social science attention.


The majority of writers take it for granted that there is trouble, as the Music Man warned, in River City. Sometimes this is explicitly stated, but more often it is an underlying theme or subtext—contemporary surveillance is viewed as something to be skeptical and suspicious of and social critics sound the alarm. The extensive and intensive noting of, “every move you make, every breath you take” is seen as a major element in the destruction of the traditionally human in an increasingly engineered, fail-safe, risk-adverse society. In such a society technology serves to further inequality and domination in ways that may not be visible (either because of transparency —they are seen through and folded into routine activities or because of opaqueness—they are obscured) This is often under the guise of doing the opposite and with a heavy dose of unintended consequences.


There are also technophiles, often nesting in engineering and computer science environments, who error on the other side, uncritically and optimistically welcoming the new surveillance amidst the challenges and risks of the 21st Century.


As a citizen concerned with calling public attention to the unequal playing fields of social control technology, whether involving undercover police and informing, computer matching and profiling, drug testing, electronic location and work monitoring or new communications, I have walked among the strident (see for example the articles on


Yet as a social scientist partial to the interpretive approach and aware of the richness and complexity of social reality, I have done so reluctantly and role conflictually. In this paper I combine these interests in analyzing some of the structural roots of concern over surveillance involving personal information.


I seek an empirical, analytic, and moral ecology (or geography or mapping) of  surveillance.2  Of particular interest are data which are involuntary collected and recorded, whether through intrusive and invasive methods —prying out what is normally withheld, or using technology to give meaning to what the individual offers (e.g., appearance, emissions unrecognized by the unaided senses, or behavior which traditionally was ignored, unrecorded and/or uncollated such as economic transactions, communication and geographical mobility).  Also of interest are data gathered through deception or by unduly seductive or coercive (e.g., an offer you can’t refuse) methods. 3


Here I take the role of the somewhat disinterested outside observer, rather than the more interested subject –whether as surveillance agent or target. I seek to uncover  the factors that help shape surveillance practices and our evaluation of them. I do this by identifying characteristics of the technologies, applications, goals, settings and data collected. This paper considers the last topic —the properties of the basic material surveillance technologies may gather.


I adopt a structural approach with caution, if not trepidation since as Hamlet claimed, “nothing’s either true or false but thinking makes it so”, (at least from the point of view of the beholder). Meaning lies not in the behavior, but in perception and interpretation.4 Yet rather than being idiosyncratic and random, the latter are largely context dependent. The challenge is to link the presence and evaluation of surveillance to the structural characteristics of the situation.

The best known normative perspective on this involves the Principles of Fair Information Practice developed in 1973 by the Health Education and Welfare Department ( ).  These are very important, but not sufficient since they say little (or not enough) about the data collection itself including the means used and how they are applied, the goals sought, the setting and the kind of data collected.  Nor do they adequately deals with issues of identification (including the move to merge distinct identifiers and to create a single identifier for each individual across settings), anonymity, pseudoanonymity and authentication.


At least five related analytic categories can be applied  to the evaluation and practice of surveillance. The first involves the inherent characteristics of the means used (e.g., bodily invasive, extends the senses, covert, degree of validity)5. The second is the actual application of the means including the collection of the data and its subsequent treatment —is the procedure competently and fairly applied and once collected are trust and confidentiality sustained, is there adequate security, are undesirable consequences minimized or otherwise mediated? Traditional data protection principles primarily apply to the second part of this. A third factor considers the legitimacy and nature of the goals the surveillance tool is used for (e.g., for the protection of health as against voyeurism). A fourth factor involves the structure of the setting in which the surveillance is used (e.g., reciprocal vs. non-reciprocal, familial vs. non-familial). A final factor conditioning evaluations of surveillance is the actual content or the kind or form of data gathered –the subject of this article.  


Kinds of Data

Beyond issues around means, goals and contexts there is the question of what type of data is involved.  I emphasize content here, although the related issue of form with respect to the method of data collection and presentation is also briefly considered. What are the major kinds of data that surveillance may gather and what characteristics unite and separate them? When we speak of surveillance just what is it that is surveilled? What is surveillance information? How does the “what” condition evaluations of surveillance? 


In the West we place particular emphasis on the sanctity of the borders around the person, the body, the family and the home and on the protection of information gathered in certain professional relationships such as those involving religion, health and law.


There is enormous variation in the morality and frequency of surveillance behaviors. At the extremes this is easy to see (e.g., contrast the discovery behavior of the Watergate burglars with that of lifeguards). Much domestic surveillance falls in a grayer area calling for a more fine grained analysis, but even at the extremes it is useful to be able to be more specific about why a form is acceptable or unacceptable.


We can push the seemingly self-evident and ask what broad cultural assumptions inform evaluations of the substance of surveillance, even while acknowledging that there will be local variation. Let us consider some questions illustrating the “kinds of data” issue.


With respect to form, under normal conditions presumably to be secretly video and audio taped is more revealing and a greater violation than either of those alone. But what if just one or the other was involved? Holding the kind of behavior constant (whether involving business, work, politics or social matters), is it a greater violation to be secretly video taped (with no audio) in a space presumed to be private, or to be audio taped with no video? How do these compare to a secret narrative account written up after-the-fact by a participant (infiltrator), or by an eavesdropper listening behind a door? What about comparing these when the recording is not secret?


Is it a greater invasion if (holding the permission issue apart) a video is shown to a medical class of a psychiatric interview in which the patient is anonymous, or is it a greater invasion if, instead, the class receives only a written narrative account, but in this case the patient is identified by name or other details? How does the presence or absence of various aspects of “identifiability” such as face, voice, name and composite details effect evaluations (e.g., face blocked but voice unaltered, face revealed but voice altered)? Why would these issues even be absent if this was an instructional video on the perfect form of  a world class athlete?


Is there any difference between a camera on a public road noting only license plate numbers vs. one that in addition captures the image of the person in the car?


When purchasing something with cash, why does it seem inappropriate for a merchant to ask for home phone number? Why do some local merchants even refuse to accept calls with Caller-ID block? Why should information about my hobbies be requested when I seek a warranty for my toaster? How does unwarranted access to an unlisted phone number or home address compare to discovering a restricted email or postal box address? How does (or should?) the leaking of the fact that a CEO candidate was in a mental hospital differ from leaking of a report based on multiple biological and social indicators that the candidate  has a high probability of developing heart disease within ten years?


In my junior high school student athletic performance was assessed by 10 measures. The top 10% received athletic letters and their scores were posted. Would it be appropriate to list all scores?  Or consider contemporary cases in which schools have been prohibited from publicly listing the names of honor students. 


On an airplane trip does it matter if the stranger sitting next to you is silent or instead begins asking you for, or revealing, personal information? Can the kind of unsolicited information offered or asked for by strangers be scaled from acceptable to unacceptable? What are the expectations here, even for close relationships? What tacit organizing principles are embedded? Contrast questions or revelations about sports teams or popular singers with that involving employment, politics, religion, family, sexual orientation and health.


Most of the above cases deal with taking information from the person but similar questions and latent patterning may be identified when unrequested information or stimulation comes to the person as well. For example contrast attitudes towards a sales appeal delivered by text (or orally) on a cell phone, over a land line phone, over a computer as spam, by regular mail and by a door to door salesperson? 6


With respect to content, what are the major kinds of information that can be known about a person and how is the seeking and taking of these evaluated by the culture? 7 As noted this is distinct, if related to, the context and how the data are (and should and be) treated according to policies such as the Principles of Fair Information Practice) once collected  and used.


It is difficult of course to talk about the meaning of personal information apart from its context (e.g., a discussion of political beliefs with a friends vs. with a feigned friend serving as a government informer,  revealing social security number for employment vs. having it be required as a driver’s license number, or drug testing bus drivers as against all 7th graders who wish to participate in extra curricular activities). 


Rather than seeing the personal or private as inherent properties, they  are usefully seen in relation to particular persons, roles and contexts which may be fluid. Let us also differentiate empirical and normative meanings of private.


The word private has two meanings which often confuses discussion of these issues. Private can have an empirical meaning—referring to the actual state of knowledge about individual information. Unlike apparent age, gender, skin color etc. (aspects which are usually visible in face-to-face settings) or readily available information such as numbers in a telephone book, much information about the individual is not known by others (although as a defining element as we move from strangers to intimates the amount declines). Such information is “private” in being not known, rather than being “public”.


But beyond the actual condition of being known or unknown, private refers to privacy norms about the appropriateness of this empirical status. Is it right or wrong that various others have, or do not have information about the person?


We must ask private for whom and under what conditions? A doctor’s knowledge of a patient’s condition is information the patient shares. It ceases to be private as unknown to the doctor even though  that knowing does not obviate the doctor’s obligation to treat it confidentially.  Knowledge that one’s partner has a tattoo in places not usually warmed by the sun is different from that knowledge obtained by an unknown voyeur with a hidden camera.


In objectifying and treating types of information more abstractly as I do in this paper, it is vital not to lose sight of the centrality of the empirical settings. However granted the centrality of situational or contextual matters to the topic, some conceptual mileage still lies in considering the  “objective” attributes of various kinds of information about persons. This can be seen by holding the context constant and imagining different kinds of information. Thus as part of treatment a doctor may know that a patient is HIV positive, has arthritis, no religious preference, is a vegetarian and a Chicago Cubs fan.  Merely because the doctor is aware of the above does not mean that the kinds of information have become equivalent. Losing (or giving up) control of information does not make it impersonal or eliminate the normative aspects. 8


All  private (in either sense noted above) information about an individual is in one sense personal, but all personal information does not involve expectations of privacy, nor when it does is this to the same degree. Within contexts it is possible to make comparative statements across kinds of information and information may retain its normative status, regardless of whether or not it is known.


There is no easy answer to the question “what is personal information?” or to how it connects to perceived assaults on our sense of dignity, respect for the individual, privacy, and intimacy. However even giving due consideration to the contextual basis of meaning and avoiding the shoals of relativism as well as reification, it is possible to talk of information as being more or less personal. There is a cultural patterning to behaviors and judgements about kinds of personal information.9 

Types of Information on the Embodied


Surveillance involving information that is at the core of the individual and more “personal” is likely to be seen as more damaging than that involving more superficial matters.10 But what is that core and what radiates from it? How does the kind of information involved connect to that core?

Scientific explanation and moral evaluation require understanding what personal information is and how assessments of its collection, representation and communication vary. This discussion is organized around the concepts in tables 1-3. The concentric circles in Table 1 show information that is individual, private, and intimate and sensitive with a  unique core identity at the center. Table 2 describes kinds of information that may be gathered. Table 3, builds on this. It is more analytic and identifies cross-cutting dimensions that can be used to unite seemingly diverse, or to separate seemingly similar, forms. This permits more systematic comparisons and some conclusions about how the nature of the information gathered by surveillance is likely to be viewed.


Given the complex, varied and changing nature of the realities we seek to understand, I approach the task of classification humbly and tentatively and note some limitations. 11


The concepts are not mutually exclusive. A given type of information about the person can fit in more than one category   —either because the concepts deal with different aspects such as the body, time, place, relationships or behavior, or because the information has mixed elements. For example, voice print, handwriting and gait analysis are biometric and behavioral in contrast to a form such as DNA, which is entirely biometric.


My emphasis is on offering a framework that usefully captures the major kinds of personal information the technologies gather and create, rather than on a fully logical, operationally defined system which can come later.


Information About Persons

What is personal information? One approach defines it in property terms as any information which the individual has certain decisional rights over.12 Thus facial image, copyrighted material or the contents of one’s medicine cabinet are personal –partly because they “belong” to the individual. However, a control definition is limited in that once control has been given up, personal information is still present.


Thus in the discarding of a pill container or a magazine subscribed to personal information usually remains. In public settings others may generally record the image and sounds the individual gives off.13  These do not cease to reflect the person as a result, even if they are re-creations and not “really” the person. 14 Or consider a person’s DNA obtained from dental floss discarded as garbage. A California court has held that an ersatz garbage collector  (as part of a suit  to prove paternity) could perform DNA analysis on it. 15 Yet the DNA still distinctively reflected the discarder.16


Another issue raising unresolved control questions is telephone number. This became clear in the controversies over Caller-Id. The act of paying for phone service (and paying even more for an unlisted number) would seem to imply control over the number. Yet as legislation and regulations generally imply, the phone number is rented and “belongs” to the phone company (at least that is the case for land lines). 17 The question of formal ownership is distinct from the conditions of use and whether the number can be released if the phone company so chooses.18 However its potential for reaching the individual and for probabilistic geo-demographic analysis brings a personal component to it.


As the above cases suggest control is an important dimension with policy implications. 19 Yet something beyond control or possession is involved in defining personal information.  We need a broader conception.


Another approach is to view any datum attached to a corporeal individual (identified by distinguishing characteristics of varying degrees of specificity) as “personal” because it corresponds to a person (e.g., being identified as a citizen of the United States, a watcher of  the Superbowl, middle-aged or owner of a SUV). But information about an individual is not necessarily equivalent to personal information in a more restricted sense.


Knowledge about the kind of car one drives when millions of people drive a similar car is a pale form of “personal” information. It is more like impersonal information, although at a general level it serves to differentiate owners from non-owners and may convey symbolic meaning  (e.g., whether one owns a red convertible sports car or a black mega-pickup truck with flames painted on the front may be seen to be making a statement, whether intended or not, about the owner.)

When we refuse or resent, having information about ourselves taken, it is often because it is seen as “personal” or “none of your business”. 20 Here something additional is present beyond many of the kinds of general information that can be associated with an individual. Private personal information needs to be located within the larger category of individual information. 


Even within the more limited category, all private information (defined as information that is not automatically known about the other which is subject to the actor’s discretion to reveal it or give permission for it to be revealed) is not the same. Some goes to the very center of one’s person while other information is peripheral or trivial (e.g. sexual preference vs. city of birth).


Considerations of the private and personal involve both a content and a procedures piece here.21 I emphasize the former.


Concentric Circles of Information

We can think of information about persons as involving concentric circles of individual, private, and intimate and sensitive information.


 (Table 1.) The outermost circle is that of individual information which includes any data/category which can be attached to a person. The individual need not be personally known, nor known by name and location by those attaching the data. Individuals need not be aware of the data linked to their person.


Individual information varies from that which is relatively impersonal with minimal implications for an individual’s uniqueness, such as being labeled as living in a flood zone or owning a four door car, to that which is more personal such as illness, sexual preference, religious beliefs, facial image, address, legal name and ancestry. The latter information has clearer implications for selfhood and for distinctly reflecting the individual.


The information may be provided by, or taken directly from the person (e.g., remote health sensors or a black box documenting driving behavior). Or it can be imposed onto persons by outsiders as with the statistical risk categories of a composite nature used in extending credit.


The next circle refers to private information not automatically available, absent special circumstances to compel disclosure as with social security number for tax purposes or a subpoena or warrant for a search, such information is defined by discretionary norms regarding revelation. An unlisted phone or credit card number and non-obvious or non-visible biographical and biological details (“private parts” 22) are examples. We can refer to information about the person not known by others whose communication the individual can control as existentially private.


In contrast to such personal information of which the individual is aware is that with implications for life chances imposed from the outside of which the individual is often unaware. Much organizational  categorization of individuals of the kind Foucault first called attention to is encompassing, routine and invisible to the subject and (artifactual). 23 This social sorting is fundmental to current social organization (Lyon 2002 ; Bowker and Star  1999). Labeling by judicial, mental health or commercial organizations may involve imputed identities (e.g., a recidivism risk category) of which the individual is unaware (whether of the existence of the information or its’ content). Such imposed classifications are better seen as secret than private. The information may be considered personal and even sensitive were it known by the individual.


Another distinction is whether, once known, an organization’s information corresponds to how persons see themselves. This raises fascinating questions involving the politics of labeling and measurement validity and can extend even beyond the grave. 24 The disparity between technical labeling and self-definition may increase and become more contested as abstract measurements claiming to characterize the person and predict future behavior based on comparisons to large data bases become more prominent. 25


Even when there is no disparity such labeling serves as a new source of identity e.g, as a high SAT scorer or a low cholesterol person. Organizational labeling has also become a marketeable commodity –among many other forms note the selling of background and credit rating scores at Sam’s Club stores. 26


The next circle is that of intimate and/or sensitive information.


Intimate comes from the Latin intimus, meaning inmost. Used as a verb the word intimate means to state or make known, implying that the information is not routinely known. Several forms can be noted.


Some “very personal” attitudes, conditions and behaviors take their significance from the fact that they are a kind of currency of intimacy selectively revealed, only to those we trust and feel close to. Such personal information is not usually willingly offered to outsiders, excluding the behavior of exhibitionists and those seen to be lacking in manners. The point is not that the behavior that might be observed is personal in the sense of necessarily being unique (e.g., sexual relations), but that control over access affirms respect for the person and sustains the value of intimacy and the relationship. Persons who prematurely reveal their hole cards or private parts are likely to do poorly at both cards and love.


We can also differentiate an intimate relationship from certain forms of information or behavior which can be intimate independent of interaction with others. E.M. Forster captures this in noting that we, “radiate  something curiously intimate when we believe ourselves to be alone". This suggests a related form –protection from intrusions into solitude or apartness. Whether alone or with trusted others, this implies a sense of security, of not being vulnerable, of being able to let one’s guard down which may permit both feelings of safety and of being able to be “one’s self”. 27

This apartness when protected by physical structures and manners (e.g. the case of bathroom activities) from others’ observation, generally protects not against strategic disadvantage or stigmatization, but rather sustains respect for personhood.


The privacy tort remedy of intrusion attempts to deal with the subjective and emotional aspects of harm from incursions into solitude when personal borders and space are wrongly crossed.  


These are harder to define than a harm such as unauthorized commercial use of a person’s data, reporting them in a false light or reporting private facts. The former involve actions taken by the other after possession of information and usually some type of publication, even if no more than a sign in a shop window. In contrast with intrusion, it is the process itself which is objectionable.

Consider also moments of vulnerability and embarrassment observable in public. For example, the expression of sadness in the face of tragedy –as with a mother who has just lost a child in a car accident. Here manners and decency require disavowing, looking the other way, not starring, let alone taking and publishing a news photo of the individual’s grief.


Some information is “sensitive,” implying a different rationale on the actor’s part for information control and the need for greater legal protections. This includes strategic information that could be useful for an opponent in a conflict situation or a victimizer, 28 or a stigma that would devalue individuals in other’s eyes, or subject them to discrimination.


Various U.S. laws recognizes information about finances, health and children as sensitive. The European Union’s data protection directive requires special protection for “sensitive data” which it defines as involving information on race and ethnicity, political, philosophical  and religious beliefs, health and sexual life.


More broadly a central theme of Erving Goffman’s work is that the individual in playing a role and in angling for advantage presents a self to the outside world that may be at odds with what the individual actually feels, believes or “is” in some objective sense. Through manners and laws, for most purposes, modern society acknowledges the legitimacy of there being a person behind the mask.


Unique and Core Identity

Two final circles at the center involve a person with various identity pegs. These (whether considered jointly or individually) engender a unique identity (“only you” as the song says) in being attached to what Goffman refers to as an “embodied” individual who is usually assumed to be alive, but need no longer be. Knowing unique identity, answers the basic question raised by Sesame Street, “who is it?” The question assumes the point of view of an outside observer trying to be honest, since individuals may prevaricate, have fluid identities, or in rare cases not know “who” they are. 29 It is from, and to, this identity that many other sources of potential information are derived or attached (radiating outward as well as being added) to the person.


The elements that make up the individual’s uniqueness are more personal than those that don’t and as degree of distinctiveness increases so does the “personalness” of the information.

Traditionally, unique identity tended to be synonymous with a core identity based on biological ancestry and family embedment. Excluding physically joined twins, each individual is unique in being the off-spring of particular biological parents, with birth at a particular place and time.


Parents and place of birth of course may be shared. Yet even for identical twins, if we add time of birth to the equation, the laws of physics and biology generate a unique core identity in the conjunction of parents, place and time of birth. This may of course be muddied by unknown sperm and egg donors, abandonment and adoption.


For most persons throughout most of history discovering identity was not an issue. In small scale societies, where there was little geographical or social mobility and people were rooted in very local networks of family and kin, individuals tended to be personally known. Physical and cultural appearance and location answered the “who is it?” question.


Names may have offered additional information about the person’s relationships, occupation, or residence (e.g., Josephson, Carpenter, Frankfurt). Names are still sometimes presumed to offer clues to ethnicity, national and class origin, and first names usually reflect gender. Titles such as Mrs. or Dr. convey additional information. Names popular in one time period that go out of fashion also may offer unwitting clues to approximate age.

However the literal information offered by a name is of little use when the observer, neither personally knowing, nor knowing about the individual in question, needs to verify the link between the name offered and the person claiming it.


With large scale societies and the increased mobility associated with urbanization and industrialization core identity came to be determined by full name and reliance on proxy forms such as a birth certificate, passport, national identity card and driver’s license. (Caplan and Torpey, 2001).


Yet given adoption of children, the ease of legally changing or using fraudulent names in the United States, and widely shared common names, 30 name may not be an adequate indicator of core id.  Nor given technologies for forgery and the theft of identification is the mere possession of identity documents sufficient for determining this.


The conventional paper forms of identification have been supplemented by forms more inherent in the physical person, though even here we must remember that the measurement offers a representation of something inherent and this reflects choices rather than anything “given” in nature.


Such measurements and transformations are a form of simulacrum. (Baudrillard, 1996; Bogard 1996) According to the dictionary this can be a neutral “image of something” as well as a darker “shadowy likeness”, “deceptive substitute” or “mere pretense”.  Among the meanings of simulate are both “imitate” and “counterfeit”. That contrast of course is what the fuss is all about, just how far in distorting the richness of the empirical should a simulation or a symbol go before it is rejected as invalid, inauthentic, inefficient or ineffective?


With the expansion of biometric technology a variety of indicators presumed to be unique (and harder to fake) are increasingly used (e.g., beyond improved fingerprinting, we see identification efforts based on DNA, voice, retina, iris, wrist veins, hand geometry, facial appearance, scent and even gait). The ease of involuntarily and even secretly gathering many of these may increase their appeal to control agents who need no longer deal with the messy issues of informed consent.


Validity varies significantly here from very high for DNA and fingerprinting (if done properly) to relatively low for facial recognition. There also are many ways of thwarting the surveillance. Even when validity is not an issue biological indicators are not automatic reflections of core identity, although they may offer advantages such as being ever present and never forgotten, lost or stolen. To be used for identification there must be a record of a previously identified person to to match the indicator to. 31 These need not lead to literal identification, but rather whether or not the material presumed to reflect a unique person is the same as that in a data base to which it is compared (i.e., “is this the same person?” whomever it is).


Police files are filled with DNA and fingerprint data that are not connected to a core legal identity. 32 With data from multiple events, because of matching, police may know that the same person is responsible for crimes but not know who the person is.


The question, “who is it?” may be answered in a variety of other ways that need not trace back to a biologically defined ancestral core or legal name. For many contemporary settings what matters is determining the presence of attributes warranting a certain kind of treatment, continuity of identity (is this the same person) or being able to locate the individual, not who the person “really” is as conventionally defined.


A central policy question is how much and what kind of identity information is necessary in various contexts. In particular, whether identification of a unique person is appropriate and, if it is, what form it should take.


Thus far we have noted ancestral, legal name and biometric forms of identity. Let us also consider locational identity, pseudonyms and anonyms. Table 2 lists 9 broad types of descriptive information commonly connectable to individuals.



Some Types of Descriptive Information Connectable to Individuals

1. Individual identification [the who question]


Legal name                                                         


Biometric (natural, environmental)   


Aliases, nicknames      


2.  Shared identification [the typification-profiling question]








DNA (most)

General physical characteristics (gender, blood type, height, skin and hair color) and appearance

Health status

Organizational memberships

Folk characterizations by reputation –liar, cheat, brave, strong, weak, addictive personality

3. Geographical/Locational  [the where, where from/where to and beyond geography, how to reach question]
A.  Fixed

Residence, residence history

Telephone number (land line)

Mail address

Cable TV

B.  Mobile

Email address

Cell phone

Vehicle and personal locators

Wireless computing


Travel records

4.  Temporal [the when question]

Date and time of activity

5.  Networks and relationships [the who else question]

Family members, married or divorced

Others the individual interacts/communicates with, roommates,  friends,  associates, others co-present (contiguous)

     at a given location (including in cyberspace) or activity including neighbors

6.  Objects [the which one and whose is it question]




Communications device


Land, buildings and businesses

7.  Behavioral [the what happened/is happening question]



A. Communication



Fact of using a given means (computer, phone, cable tv,diary, notes or library) to create, send, or

     receive information (mail covers, subscription lists, pen registers, email headers, cell phone, GPS)

Content of that communication (eavesdropping, spyware,  library use, book purchases)

B. Economic behavior --buying (including consumption patterns and preferences), selling, bank, credit card transactions

C. Work monitoring

D.  Employment history

E. Norm and conflict related behavior --bankruptcies, tax liens, smallclaims and civil judgements, criminal

     records, suits filed

8.  Beliefs, attitudes, emotions [the inner or backstage  and presumed “real”  person question]

9. Measurement Characterizations (past, present, predictions, potentials [the kind of person,  predict your future question]

Credit ratings and limits

Insurance ratings

SAT and college acceptability scores

Intelligence tests

Civil service scores

Drug tests

Truth telling (honesty tests, lie detection)

Psychological inventories, tests and profiles 

Occupational placement and performance tests

Medical (HIV, genetic, cholesterol etc.)

10. Media references (yearbooks, newsletters, newspapers, tv, internet)

Location refers to a person’s “address”. It answers a "where", more than a "who" question.  Address can be geographically fixed as with most residences and workplaces, land line phones and post office boxes.  A person of interest may, or may not be  at these places or be using a device. Yet such addresses are a kind of tether from which persons usually venture forth and return.


In contrast are geographically mobile (if always located somewhere) addresses, as with a cell phone, email, or implanted GPS chip.  These portable means need not reside or remain in a fixed place and stand in a different relationship to the person than a fixed geographical address which is believed to offer greater accountabililty. 33


Two meanings of address are “reachability” involving an electronic or other communications address and the actual geographical location in latitude and longitude of the person in question at that time. These may, but need not be linked34, nor do they require core id. Recent developments in the rationalization of United States postal addresses and the linking of census block data to GPS coordinates mean that the actual location of every address and every land line phone  can  now be known to within a limited number of meters. 


Distance mediated and remote forms of cyber-space interaction are ever more common, and the ability to reach and be reached is central for many activities.  This ability to locate postal and conventional phone addresses is now matched by the ability to locate mobile cell phone users. 

Communication location is increasingly important (beyond whatever additional knowledge it might contain e.g., an address in Harlem or Beverly Hills,  a phone number spelling a name or as evidence indicating a person was or was not at a given place). For many purposes being able to “reach” someone becomes as or more important than knowing “where” they literally are geographically. The “locator” number for bureaucratic records is related, however it connects to the file, not to the person.


The "where" question need not be linked with the "who" question. The ability to communicate (especially remotely) may not require knowing who it “really” is, only that they be accessible and assessable. Knowing location may permit taking various forms of action such as communicating, blocking, granting or denying access, penalizing, 35 rewarding, delivering, picking up or apprehending.


The “who” may also be known and the “where” unknown. For example the identity of fugitives is known but not how they can be reached.  Even knowing both name and location an individual may be unreachable, as when blocking is present, or there is no extradition treaty. For example the U.S. knew that Robert Vesco was in Cuba but it was unable to arrest him there.

Nor need the specific identity be known in order to take broad actions based on categorical/group  inferred attributes. As the slogan “you are where you live”, suggests the “where” question for many purposes is a statistical proxy for the “who” question. This has implications for trying to shape behavior through appeals and advertisements, environmental engineering, setting prices (such as for insurance) and the location of goods and services. Claritas’ location data offers customers “segmentation, market research, customer logistics and site selection”.


Such typification based on statistical averages is increasingly a cornerstone of organizational decision making for merchants, employers, medical doctors, police and corrections agents. From a standpoint of presumed rationality and efficiency it is understandable. But actions at the aggregate or group level, however logical, may clash with expectations of individualized treatment. Our sense of fairness involves assumptions about being treated in a way that is personal in reflecting the individual’s particular circumstances. There is contradiction or irony here in that in order to have such fine grained treatment vast amounts of personal information are required, creating a potential and temptation to treat individuals in general terms.


In reducing the several hundred thousand census blocks to a limited number of geodemographic types Claritas tells us that, “people with similar lifestyles tend to live near one another.” One of its’ “products” —PRIZM “describes every U.S. neighborhood in terms of 62 distinct life style types, called clusters, while its’ MicroVision “defines 48 lifestyle types called segments” ( .) Such characterizations combine census, zip code, survey and purchase data. You are what you consume. For many marketing purposes there is no need to know core identity if fixed or mobile location is known.  The latter has received a very large boost with the appearance of the 911E system which federal law now requires in response to the rapid spread of cell phones not tied to a fixed residence.


Location information has a very special status in that it can both identify and monitor or track movement over time. In addition it offers the potential to both take from and to impose upon the borders of the person. As with monitoring of internet behavior and subsequent ads, it can sequentially join two forms of personal border crossing.


This contrasts with most other kinds of personal information collection (e.g., a photograph, a name, a medical record, or an overheard conversation) which only involve taking from the person.  Location information in a sense offers two for one.  The substantive information it provides can be compared to predictive models (or used to build them) that then serve to direct how the individual is responded to. In that regard it is like a supermarket saver card. But  it additionally offers a means of action –knowing where the person may permit “reaching” them, either literally as with 911 responders or through targeted communications.


Pseudonyms and Anonyms

Apart from legal name and location, 36 unique or at least somewhat distinctive identification may involve pseudonyms such as a nickname, alias, pen name,  nom de plume or nom de guerre.

Alpha-numeric indicators are functionally equivalent to a pseudonym. A numeric or alphabetic identification is often intended to refer to only one individual. While names can be held in common, letters and numbers are sufficient as unique identifiers, although they may also be keys to additional common information, such as where and when issued, and a rating. Unlike birth parents or DNA material, they are merely convenient and need have no intrinsic link to core identity.


As buffering devices, pseudonyms may offer a compromise solution in which protection is given to literal identity or location, while meeting needs for some degree of identification, often involving continuity of identity. They vary in the degree of pseudo-anonymity they offer. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, they often may be linked back to an individual known by name, location or other details.


The number on a secret Swiss bank account permits transactions while keeping the owner’s identity unknown to outsiders. An on-line service such as AOL likely knows the true (or at least claimed) identity of its customers, even as  they are permitted to have 5 pseudonyms for use in chat rooms and on bulletin boards. The nom de plume of authors wishing to shield their actual identity will usually be known to their publisher. The true identity of protected witnesses, spies and undercover operatives, when not using their real names, is known by the sponsoring agency. License plate number also fits here. The identity of the owner is no longer publicly available, even though it is known by the state and can be made available under appropriate conditions. 37

There are also time-lagged forms such as census records, sealed court and arrest records and other government documents which protect identity and content for a fixed period of time and are then made available.


In other forms an organization may be explicit in offering confidentiality. Persons calling tip hot lines may be given an identifying number which they may latter use to collect a reward. Those engaged in illegal activities, leakers, whistle blowers and the stigmatized may be offered full anonymity. For example persons encouraged to return contraband during a grace period are told, “no questions asked.” In some areas, the name of those tested for AIDS is not requested and they are identified only by a number. 38


There are many settings where anonymity and the absence of a documentary record are implied, at least in the sense that individuals are not asked for personal information. Barter and cash purchases, many kinds of information request  and being in a public place are traditional examples.


In other settings, the core identity of the person is deemed irrelevant, even though some information and continuity of identity (apart from literally knowing it) is required. Many contexts require that the individual have some general characteristics warranting inclusion or exclusion, access or its’ denial, or a particular kind of treatment.


 Eligibility certificates (or tokens) offer a way of showing that one is entitled to a given service without requiring that the user be otherwise identified. Theater tickets and stamps on the hand at concerts, or cards purchased with cash for using telephones, computers, photo-copy machines, mass transit and EZ pass transmitters for toll roads are examples. With smart card technologies such forms are likely to become much more common.


While possibly offering some information such as where and when obtained and where used, such certificates do not indicate who obtained or used them (although a hidden video camera may reveal that). Tokens offer a way of having accountability –e.g.,  proof of eligibility, while otherwise protecting personal information.


Beyond these certifications other forms of shared, but not uniquely personal information, can be seen in the possession of artifacts and knowledge or skill demonstration. Thus uniforms, badges, and group tattoos (and other visible symbols such as a scarlet letter or cross) are means of identity. These represent their possessor as a certain kind of person whether involving eligibility or presumed social and moral character, with no necessary reference to anything more.  The symbols can of course be highly differentiated with respect to categories of person and levels of eligibility. But the central point is their categorical rather than individual nature.


The possession of knowledge can also serve this function (e.g., knowing a secret hand signal, a pin or account number,  or a code or the “color of the day“ (used by police departments to permit officers in civilian clothes to let uniformed officers know they are also police). Demonstrating a skill, such as passing a swim test in order to be in the deep end, can also be seen as a form of identity-certification.


When no aspects of identity are available (being uncollected, altered, or severed) we have true anonymity. With respect to communication, a variety of forwarding services market anonymity. Consider a call forwarding service that emerged to thwart Caller-Id. The call, after being billed to a credit card was routed through a 900 number and the originating phone number is destroyed. Calls from pay phones also offer anonymity not available from a home telephone. There are various mail forwarding services and anonymizing/anomizer web services that strip (and destroy) the original identifying header information from an e-mail and then forward it. 39

Among the dictionary meanings of anonymity are “unknown name,” “unknown authorship,” and “without character, featureless, impersonal”.  The traditional meanings of the term are somewhat undercut by contemporary behavior and technologies. In writing of the “surveillant assemblage”  Haggerty and Erickson (2000) note “the progressive ‘disappearance of disappearance’” as once discrete surveilance systems are joined. Genuine anonymity appears to be less common than in the past. The line between pseudo-anonymity and anonymity is more difficult to draw today than it was for the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. More common are various forms of partial anonymity.

“Anonymous” persons may send or leave a variety of clues about aspects of themselves (apart from name and location) as a result of the ability of technology to give meaning to the unseen, unrecognized and seemingly meaningless. Consider a DNA sample from a sealed envelope or a straw used in a soft drink, heat sensors that “see” through walls and in the dark, software for analyzing handwriting and writing patterns, face and vehicle recognition technology, the capture of computer id and sections of a web page visited and composite profiles. Anonymity ain’t what it used to be—whatever the intention of the actor wishing to remain unrecognized and featureless.    


Patterns and Culture

Social leakage, patterned behavior and a shared culture are other reasons why it is relatively rare that an individual about whom at least something is known will be totally “without character” or “featureless”.


Some identification may be made by reference to distinctive appearance, behavior or location patterns of persons. Being unnamed is not necessarily the same as being unknown. Some information is always evident in face-to-face interaction because we are all ambulatory autobiographies continuously and unavoidably emitting data for other's senses and machines. The uncontrollable communication of some data is a condition of physical and social existence. This varies from information the individual is aware of offering such as appearance or when using a cell phone, to that which he or she is likely to be unaware of such as scent, gait, radiation and brain waves, hidden identification symbols on property such as cars and documents (whether in the paper or left by a copy machine), and the subtle inferences available to various types of identification specialists, whether medical or juridical.


It may also involve leakage which the individual would like to control, but will often be unable to, such as facial expressions when lying (Eckman 1985, 2003) or sudden surprise as with unexpectedly seeing a police officer. New technologies have greatly expanded the potential to turn leaky data into information.


A distinction Erving Goffman makes between knowing a person in the sense of being acquainted with them, and knowing of them, applies here. The patterned conditions of urban life mean that we identify many persons we don't "know" (that is we know neither their names, nor do we know them personally). Instead we know some form of their social signature—whether it is face, a voice heard over mass media or phone, a location they are associated with, or some distinctive element of style. In everyday encounters, for example, as with regularly using public transportation we may come to "know" other riders in the sense of recognizing them.


Style issues fit here. Skilled graffiti writers may become well known by their "tags" (signed nicknames) or just their distinctive style, even as their real identity is unknown to most persons. (Ferrell 1996) Persons making anonymous postings to a computer bulletin board may come to be "known" by others because of the content, tone or style of their communications.


Similarly detectives attribute re-occurring crimes with a distinctive pattern involving time, place victim and means of violation to a given individual, even though they don't know the person's name (e.g., the Unabomber, the Son of Sam, the Red Light Bandit, Jack-the-Ripper).


With the development of systematic criminal personality profiling detectives, steeped in the facts of previous crimes, make predictions about the characteristics and behavior of unidentified suspects. Using general cultural knowledge, research data, data from other cases, facts from the crime scene,  along with intuition and the ability to imagine how the other thinks and feels (“verstehen”),  they develop profiles that are intended to help understand and apprehend perpetrators. (e.g., Douglas,  1992, Ressler, 1992). They claim to “know” persons without literally knowing them with respect to core identity. 40


There are also pro-social examples such as anonymous donors  whose gift is distinctive (“in memory of Rosebud”) or who give in predictable ways which makes them "known" to charities. They differ from the anonymous donor who gives only once in an indistinct fashion.

Style of course is often linked with identity—a marketing goal sought by celebrities and advertizers relying on public recognition. This varies from seeing a painting and knowing it is a Van Gogh, to the ability to identify popular singers. In such cases for those in the know, style and identity are merged. One kind of specialization is the ability to read clues others offer. 41


Composite Identity

Identification may involve social categorization. Many visible forms do not differentiate the individual from others sharing them (e.g.,  gender, age, skin color, disability, linguistic patterns, and general appearance). Inferences about others such as education, class, sexual orientation, religion, occupation, organizational memberships, employment, leisure activities and friendship patterns are often volunteered or easily discovered.


Dress or simply being at certain places at particular times or associating with particular kinds of people can also be keys to presumed aspects of identity (e.g., at a gay bar or with political dissidents). Folk wisdom show this profiling logic in claiming, "birds of a feather flock together" or "you are known by the company you keep".


Attributes which are common and readily available to others are not usually thought of as being private matters, although manners may require tactfully disattending, and anti-discrimination legislation formally ignoring, what is obvious.


The compartmentalization (isolation from each other) of various aspects of the person passively protect the individual’s privacy and uniqueness. Any given general attribute may reveal little —such as being male or living in a rural area. However when an increasing number of categories are combined, the individual may be uniquely (or almost) identified through a composite identity.42 Privacy may be invaded and a distinctive personal mosaic created with the merging of a number of seemingly non-personal general items (gender, ethnicity, age, education, occupation, census district). The greater the number of categories involved, the more specific the information and thus, other factors being equal, the closer to the unique individual and the more personal or at least one major meaning of it. 43 


David Shulman (1994) observes that the skill or art of the detective (whether public or private) is to use readily accessible individual information, (available partly because it tends to be neutral, non-controversial or non-discrediting) to locate hidden and discrediting sensitive information.

Traditionally personal information such as social security,  telephone and license plate number or birth date were viewed as substantively neutral (in contrast to information regarding HIV status or a criminal record).44 Relatively little attention was given to keeping the above numbers and the personal information they are linked to private.


Yet with linked computerrecords (whether involving a single idntifier or merging of multiple identifiers) they take on a more personal meaning.  As locators they can be used to learn about and find or reach the person, going from the public-neutral to private-discrediting information, generating a mosaic image of the person through linking previously unconnected information, and generating predictions based on comparing the person’s data to that of similar others about whom much more is known.

Cultural Knowledge

Even having only one or two pieces of information may be revealing when there is general cultural knowledge. Here visibility refers not to what we literally see, but to what we know (or can discover) as participants in the culture. Sherlock Holmes’ success for example lay partly in his ability to deduce applicable facts from his broad knowledge of culture and society. He often used his general knowledge to understand and locate a culprit.


There is a great line in the film Annie Hall in which Woody Allen, on learning that a young women he meets is from Manhattan, presumes to tell her where she went to school, summer camp and about her taste in politics and art. To which she sarcastically replies, “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.” 45


She is reacting against Allen’s categorization not surveillance per se –as might be the case if she discovered he was eavesdropping. The reaction against such labeling involves the assertion of individualism against the predictable commonalties presumed by culture and roles. 46 In the tradition of Sartre  “authenticity” involves refusing to accept societal labels, particularly when they are stigmatizing. Freedom exists in rejection of the  expectations and positions offered by the culture. Sartre and implicitly, if more ambivalently, for Goffman with his concept of role distance, there is a moral obligation to resist.


Broad knowledge of a culture, whether through socialization into it, or simply becoming familiar with it, may offer information about an individual whom nothing specific is known. To know that an “anonymous” individual is a citizen of the United States may already offer some information about language, thought patterns and some general aspects of behavior. With additional knowledge, such as age, may come familiarity with major news events and popular culture experienced by the individual’s age cohort. To identify an individual as male is to presume other things about the person such as a known physiology, a male voice or lesser life expectancy. When correct, culture offers individual, but not personal or private information. 47


This ability to go from generalized knowledge to assumptions about unknown individuals is a cornerstone not only of detectives, but also of marketing research and of social research based on samples more broadly. In the latter cases, what is learned from a carefully chosen sample of persons with particular demographic characteristics (e.g., urban, college educated, males between 18-25), who are paid to volunteer information about themselves, also reveals information about others with those characteristics. Those in the sample are presumed to speak for, and be representative of, their group.48 There is an unrecognized value conflict here between the individual who, in consenting also in a sense “consents” for others who are not asked.



The form and elements of the content of personal information are connected, at least initially, e.g., (video lens gathers the visual). But the tool and the resulting data can be subsequently disconnected in the presentation of results. Video 49 or audio recordings are likely to be most powerful and convincing if directly communicated the way they were recorded. 50 However their information can also be communicated in other ways—a written narrative of events or a transcript of conversations. Conversely observations and written accounts can be offered as visual images –as with a sketch of a suspect or a video reconstruction of a traffic accident for court presentation.


Many new surveillance forms are characterized by some form of conversion from data collection to presentation. Thus physical DNA material or olifactory molecules are converted to numerical indicators which are then represented visually and via a statistical probability. With thermal imaging the amount of heat is shown in color diagrams sometimes suggestive of objects. The polygraph converts physical responses to numbers and then to images in the form of charts. Satellite images convert varying degrees of light to computer code which are then offered as photographs. Faces and the contours of body areas can be blocked or otherwise distorted when the goal is not identification, but searching for contraband rather than identification.

When not presented with intent to deceive, the visual and audio, in conveying information more naturalistically (even if still once or more removed in involving conversion from the raw data to what is offered the observer), seem more invasive than a more abstract written narrative account or numerical and other representations relying on symbols. 51


The visual in turn is more invasive than the audio. The Chinese expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” captures this, although it must be tempered with some skepticism about whether, “seeing is believing”. Direct visual and audio data implicitly involve a self-confessional mode which  initially at least, enhances validity relative to a narrative account of a third party, or even a written confession after the fact by the subject. Such data create the illusion of reality.

The other senses such as taste, smell and touch play a minimal role, although they may be used to bring other means into play, as with justifying a visual search on the basis of smelling alcohol or drugs.  Although the senses may not be as independent as is usually assumed. Recent research in neurology suggests the senses are interconnected and interactive and can not be as easily separated as common sense would suggest. 52


Assessing Surveillance Data

Let us move from the descriptive categories of information in table 2 to the dimensions in table 3 which can be used to compare and contrast the former. This permits some conclusions with respect to how the kind and form of data relate to the prevalence and assessments of surveillance. The dimensions should be seen on a continuum, although only the extreme values are shown.


The multi-dimensional nature of personal information, the extensive contextual and situational variation related to this and the dynamic nature of contested social situations prevents reaching any simple conclusions about how the information gathered by surveillance will (empirically) and should (morally) be evaluated. Such complexity may serve us well when it introduces humility and qualification, but not if it immobilizes. Real analysts see the contingent as a challenge to offer contingent statements.


In that spirit I hypothesize that other factors being equal, attitudes toward surveillance will be more negative the more the values on the left side of Table 3 are present. 53 These combine in a variety of ways. They might also be ranked relative to each other –the seriousness of a perceived violation seems greatest for items 1-9. But such fine-tuning is a task best left for future hypothesizing.


Now let us simply note that there is an additive effect and the more (both in terms of the greater the number and the greater the degree)  the values on the left side of the table are present, the greater the perceived wrong in the collection of personal information. The worst possible cases involve a core identity, a locatable person, and information that is personal, private, intimate, sensitive, stigmatizing, strategically valuable, extensive, biological, naturalistic54 and predictive55 and reveals deception 56, is attached to the person, and involves an enduring and unalterable documentary record.


The sense of indignation of course deepens when  other elements are considered  (e.g., invalid,  inappropriately applied or irrelevant means, lack of consent or even awareness on subject’s part, illegitimate goal).  But my point here is to hold those constant and ask what conceptual mileage might lie in just considering what it is that is surveilled.


It is one thing to list characteristics of results likely to be associated with attitudes toward surveillance and the perception of normative violations. However proof and explanation are a different matter. The assertions drawn from Table 3 are hypotheses to be empirically assessed. 57 Next, if this patterning of indignation (or conversely acceptance) of the stuff of surveillance is accurate what might account for it? Is there a common thread or threads traversing these?   Several of the most salient can be noted.

For things not naturally known, norms tend to protect against inappropriately revealing information reflecting negatively on a person’s moral status and strategic interests (e.g., employment, insurance, safety, non-discrimination).  The policy debate is about when it is legitimate to reveal and conceal (e.g., criminal records after a sentence has been served, unpopular or risky, but legal life styles, contraceptive decisions for teenagers, genetic data to employers or insurers, credit card data to third parties). It is also about the extent to which the information put forth may be authenticated, often with the ironic additional crossing of personal borders.


Another distinct factor is the extent to which the information is unique, characterizing only one locatable person, or a small number of persons. Protection of information that would lead to unique and even core identity is more a means to the factors in the preceding paragraph than an end in itself.  This is one version of the idea of safety in numbers, although the anonymity and lack of accountability  may ironically lead to anti- or un-social behavior.58


Also more in the means category, and set apart from immediate instrumental consequences, are norms that sustain respect for the person in protecting zones of intimacy, whether the insulated conversations and behavior of friends; actions taken when alone; or the physical borders of the body.  The protection of these informational borders symbolically and practically sustains individual autonomy and liberty. Backstage behavior can also be a resource in which strategic actions are prepared.


This paper has analyzed some aspects of the substance and nature of personal data that can be collected and suggests a framework for more systematic analysis. The kind of data gathered is one piece needed for a broader ecology of surveillance. When the dimensions noted here are joined with other dimensions for characterizing surveillance —the structure of the situation and  the nature of surveillance means and goals, we have a fuller picture and a framework for systematic analysis and comparison at the micro and middle ranges. A formally, if not substantively, equivalent framework is also required as we look comparatively across time periods, societies and cultures.


Trends and Counter Trends in Surveillance

In conclusion let me move from the specific focus on what surveillance collects to some more general empirical trends and speculations about identity and surveillance in recent decades that suggest issues for research.

  • The decline of anonymity. The ability to be unnoticed (which involves multiple dimensions) has declined significantly, although this is not the same as being uniquely known.

  • Making the meaningless meaningful. Once noticed the ability to remain unidentified, whether by core identity, or some other specific measure has declined.

  • Colonization of time, space and physical borders. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily on the subject’s part, the ability to discover and track the varied forms of individual information in real time across physical barriers, locations and over time has significantly increased.

  • Increased validity (if still far from ideal for many purposes). When correctly applied, current core identification technologies show a high degree of validity relative to the cruder Lombrosian and eye witness techniques of the 19th century. Validity and understanding of current empirical events, competencies and experiences on the average is stronger than for those in the past and the latter in turn tend to have a greater validity than for future predictions.

  • Category expansion. There is a significant expansion of ways of measuring and classifying individuals and contexts that are retrospective, as well as prospective. These abstract characterizations that symbolize personal characteristics involve behavior as well as presumed essence (whether physiological or moral). These often are, but need not necessarily be, attached to a core identity. These involve greater precision with respect to traditional measures, as well as composite measures that are increasingly removed from the “natural” relatively uncomplex factors which composed personal information prior to, and even during industrialization.

  • The merging of previously compartmentalized data. The ability to be known about as a result of combining indicators has significantly increased.

  • Apart from technical developments that permit involuntarily collecting personal information, there has been a major expansion of laws, policies and procedures mandating that individuals provide information. Whether related to effectiveness, crises, or fairness, access to participation in modern life (voting, government benefits, employment, building or gated community access etc.) increasingly requires some form of identity validation.

  • The integration of life activities with the generation of personal data. We increasingly live in ways that automatically provide personal information as part of the activity –i.e., the use of credit cards, communication and driving.

  • The blurring of lines between public and private places makes personal information more available. Note the privatization of places traditionally seen as “public” such as shopping malls and industrial parks (with legal means of collecting personal information). Or consider the blurring of the lines between home and work and the merging of public and private data bases and the ability of technologies to reveal some aspects of what is within a private space without the need to literally enter it, e.g., thermal imaging or cameras in pubic places that aimed at private places. Other examples are the availability of web and related searches in finding and merging personal information that had been de facto private because of spatial and temporal separation and the presumed ability to learn about non-consenting individuals by generalizing from those sharing attributes who voluntarily provide.


These trends suggest the familiar nowhere to run, tightening of the noose, decline of private space, privatization of public space, Leviathan all-knowing political, commercial and even interpersonal State of the dystopic imagination. Yet however powerful as an indicator of a social trend and as a raiser of consciousness, this view must be tempered by noting opposing developments.

In the midst of some impassioned political demonstration in the 1960s I recall a conversation that began, “if I had not believed it, I never would have seen it.” Certainly to a degree, “where you stand depends on where you sit”. Some of what we see depends on how and where we look. But much does not. There really is a reality out there and it is much messier than many of those studying surveillance and social ordering through technology acknowledge.

The current situation is dynamic and rapidly changing. Some opposing trends involving the ironic vulnerabilities of any system of control, as well as broader historical trends can be seen. Among some counter trends:

  • Increased freedom of choice. Individuals in some ways are freer both morally and tactically to make or remake themselves than ever before. Some identities that historically tended to be largely inherited such as social status or religion can more easily be changed.  Other identities have become culturally more legitimate, such as divorce and homosexuality, out of wedlock birth, adoption, with a subsequent decline in traditional stigmas and the need to be protective of certain kinds of information. 59 Even seemingly permanent physical attributes such as gender, height, body shape or facial appearance can be altered, whether by hormones or surgery or beauty parlors.  The ultimate is the emerging technology of total face transplants. 60

  • Television “make over” shows and self-altering products reflect related strands of this.  These developments imply the emergence of a more protean self and the self as a commodity and an object to be worked on, just as one would work on a plot of land or carve a block of wood. Identities in some ways are becoming relatively less unitary, homogeneous, fixed and enduring, as the modernist idea of being able to choose who we are continues to expand, along with globalization processes. This is aided by the expansion of non-face-to-face interaction. 61

  • New opportunity structures for exercising choice. The distance mediated interaction of cyberspace which calls forth new means of authentication also opens up a vast potential for offering various forms of alternative or prevaricated individual information. Cyberspace as play (service providers such as AOL offering on-line aliases and fantasy chat rooms) encourages this.

  • New functional alternatives to core identity. The absolute number and relative importance of non-core forms of identity offering varying degrees of anonymity has increased. There is a significant expansion in the variety of pseudonymous certification mechanisms intended to mask or mediate between the individual's name and location, yet still convey needed information. As more and more actions are remotely tracked in cyberspace (e.g., phone communication, highway travel, consumer transactions) the pseudonym will become an increasingly common and accepted form of presenting the self for particular purposes (whether as a unique individual or as a member of a particular category.

  • Enhanced chances for neutralization. Beyond the expansion of life style/identity choices we see the ironic emergence of markets for counter-surveillance offering a vast array of methods to protect individual information, whether by blocking, distorting, deceiving or destroying the surveillance means. (Marx 2003) Much of this represents a righteous response to the creeping or galloping expropriation of personal information, yet some also represents new opportunity structures for violation. The ease of presenting fraudulent identities divorced from the traditional constraints of localism and place and time is central to crimes of identity theft. 62

  • Significant improvements in technologies for protecting individual information. With encryption there is the potential for a degree of confidentiality in communication, and enhanced accountability and data protection never before seen. Technologies and services for protecting personal information are increasingly available, from shredders to home security systems to various software and privacy protection services.

  • New normative protections and awareness. There has been a significant expansion of laws, policies and  manners that limit and regulate the collection of personal information and its subsequent treatment.63 There has been some growth in choice and opt-in systems.64 This ties to the broader 20th century expansions of civil liberties and civil rights, as well as to particular crises. Whether these go far enough, are effective, and how they compare across institutions and cultures are important research questions.

These opposing trends work against sweeping generalizations beyond this one against sweeping statements. Considered together some of the above developments are ironic and contradictory, I take this as a sign of reality's ability to overflow our either/or categories and the need to avoid simplistic theorizing, as well as the need for empirical research.



Some Dimensions of Individual Information

1. Personal
  Yes No (Impersonal)
2. Intimate
  Yes No
3. Sensitive
  Yes No
4. Unique Identification
  Yes (distinctive but shared) No (anonymous)
  Core Non-core
5. Locatable
  Yes No
6. Stigmatizable (reflection on character of subject)
  Yes No
7. Prestige enhancing
  Yes No
8. Reveals deception (on part of subject)
  Yes No
9. Strategic disadvantage to subject
  Yes No
10 Amount and variety
  Extensive, multiple kinds of information Minimal, single kind
11. Documentary (re-usable) record
  Yes [permanent?] record No
12. Attached to or part of person
  Yes No
13. Biological
  Yes No
14. "Naturalistic" (reflects reality in obvious way, face validity)
  Yes No (artifactual)
15.  Information is predictive rather than reflecting empirically documentable past and present
  Yes No
16.  Shelf life
  Enduring Transitive
17.  Alterable
  Yes No

Back to Main Page  |  Top  |  Bibliography  |  Notes




Adey, P.  (2004) “Secured and Sorted Mobilities: Examples from the Airport”. Surveillance and Society. 4. Feb.


Allen, A. 2003, Accountability for Private Life. Lanham, MD.:Rowman and Littlefield.


Alpert, S. 2003. “Protecting Medical Privacy: Challenges in the Age of Genetic Information”. Journal of Social Issues, vol. 59, no. 2.


Altheide, D. 1995. An Ecology of Communication: Cultural Forms of

Control. Hawthorne, N.YH.:Aldine de Gruyter.


Baudrillard, J. 1996. Collected Writings, edited by M. Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Bennett, C. and Grant, R. 1999. Visions of Privacy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Bennett, C. and Rabb, C. 2003.  The Governance of Privacy. Brookfield, VT.: Ashgate.


Bloom, A. 2003. NORMAL Transsexual  CEOS, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites With Attitude. New York: Random House.


Bogard, B. 1996. The Simulation of Surveillance: Hyper Control in Telematic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Bowker, G. and Star, S. 1999. Sorting Things Out. Cambridge, MA.: M.I.T. Press.


Brin, D. 1998. The Transparent Society. Reading, MA.: Perseus Books.


Caplan, J. and Torpey, J. 2001. Documenting Individual Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


Cohen, J. 2003. “DRM and Privacy”.  Berkeley Journal of Technology Law. Vol. 18.


Curry, M. 1997. Digital Places: Living With Geographic Information Systems. London: Routledge.


Douglas, J. F. 1992.  Crime classification manual: a standard system for investigating and classifying violent crimes.  Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.


Ekman, P. 1985. Telling Lies. New York. W.W. Norton.


Ericson, R. and Haggerty, K. 1997. Policing the Risk Society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Etzioni, A.  1999. The Limits of Privacy.  New York: Basic Books.


Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.


Froomkin, M. 2000. “The Death of Privacy?”  Stanford Law Review. Vol. 52, no. 5.


Gandy, O. 1993. The Panoptic Sort. Colorado: Westview Press.


—2003 “Public Opinion Surveys and the Formation of Privacy Policy”, Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 59 , no. 1.


Garfinkel, S. (2000). Database Nation. Sebastopol, CA.: O’Reilly.


Gillom, J. (2001) Overseers of the Poor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.


Ferrell, J. 1996. Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti. Boston: Northeastern University Press.


Haggerety, K. and Ericson, R.  2000. “The Surveillant Assemblage”. British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, no. 4.


Latane and Darly 1968.


Laudon, K. 1996. “Markets and Privacy”, Communications of the ACM. Vol. 39, no. 9


Li, K.  1996. “The Private Insurance Industry’s Tactics Against Suspected Homosexuals: Redlining Based on Occupation, Residence and Marital Status”. American Journal of Law & Medicine 22: 477-502.


Lyon, D. 2001. Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life.  Buckingham: Open University Press.


—2002. Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Automated Discrimination. New York: Routledge.


Marx, G. 1989. “For Sale Personal Information About You” Washington Post.  Dec. 11.


—1998. “An Ethics for the New Surveillance”. The Information Society. Volume 14, no. 3.


—2001. “Murky Conceptual Waters: The Public and the Private”, Ethics and Information Technology. Vol. 3, no. 3.


—2002.  “What’s New About the New Surveillance?: Classifying for Change and Continuity, Surveillance and Society. vol. 1, no. 1.


—2003. “A Tack in the Shoe: Neutralizing and Resisting the New Surveillance”. Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 59, no. 1.


Marguilis, S. 2003. “Privacy as a Social Issue and Behavioral Concept”. Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 59 , no. 1.


McCahill, M. 2002. The Surveillance Web. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.


Monmonier, M. 2002. Spying With Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


National Research Council, 1993. Private Lives and Public Policies. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.


Newburn, T. & Hayman, S. 2002. Policing, Surveillance and Social Control.  Cullompton: Willan Publishing.


Pager, D. 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology. 108 (5): 937-975.


Philips, D.  2003. “Beyond Privacy: Confronting Loctional Surveillance in Wireless Communication”. Commuicaton Law and Policy, 8: 1-23.


Post, E. 1992. Emily Post’s Etiquette. New York: HarperCollins.


Poster, M. 1990. The Mode of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Regan, P. 1995. Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Ressler, R. 1992. Whoever Fights Monsters. New York: St. Martins Press.


Rosen, J. 2000.  The Unwanted Gaze. New York: Random House.


Rule, J.  & Hunter, L. 1999. “Towards Property Rights in Personal Data” in Bennett, C. and Grant, R. (eds.) Visions of Privacy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Solove, D. 2002. “Conceptualizing Privacy.”  California Law Review,  vol. 90


Staples, W. 2000. Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.


Sacks. O. “The Mind’s Eye” The Yorker, July 28, 2003.


Sartre, J.P. 1993. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press.


Shulman, D. 1994. "Dirty Data and Investigative Methods: Some Lessons from Private Detective Work." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 23:214-253.

Stone-Romero, E., Stone, D., Hyall D. 2003. “Personnel Selection Procedures and Invasion of Privacy.” Journal of Social Issues. 59: 343-368.

Back to Main Page  |  Top  |  Bibliography


1 To note some of the more recent general treatments: Allen, 2003; Marguilis 2003; Bennett and Rabb 2003; Lyon 2001; Gutwirth 2002; Garfinkle 2000; Rosen 2000; Smith 2000; Froomkin 2000; Staples 2000; Etzioni 1999; Brin 1998; Agre and Rotenberg 1997; Ericson and Haggerty, K. 1997; Bogard 1996; Lyon and Zureik 1996. On more specific topics, Monmonier 2002; Newburn and Hayman 2002; McCahill 2002; Gilliom 2001 and Nippert-Eng 1997.


2 Initial statements are in Marx 1998 and 2002 and a fuller treatment is in Marx, forthcoming. On the ecology of communication more generally see Altheide 1995. For a related approach emphasizing the need to consider the local situational character of privacy in designing  legal protections see Solove 2002. Such mapping is also central for understanding non-legally binding policies and expectations.


3 The former is more difficult to define but note the suggestion that Americans will tell you anything about themselves for discounts, frequent flyer miles or the chance to win trips to resorts.


4 Of course there are limits on this and it refers more strongly to meaning, motivation and evaluation than the actual behavior. Hamlet would be hard pressed to apply his claim to the belief that his father and Ophelia did not die.


5 There is a merging here of  the technical and social as determinants. Thus a device needing a power source introduces certain constraints just as a miniaturized device offers covert opportunities. Yet the latter changes if  its’ use and location are identified. Choice also extends to the way the technology is designed. Thus in the U.S. it is mandated that when a cell phone is used for a 911 call its location be identified. However whether the location can also be found for non-emergency calls, or simply when the phone is on depends on how it built. In the U.S. there is as yet no standard for this, some phones have an on or off switch for other than 911 calls and others do not. Philips (2003)


6 Factors conditioning attitudes toward such unrequested information include the ease of ignoring it and the degree of intrusion into a space seen to be protected and direct costs to the person as with having to pay for a cell phone message.


7 Note that here my focus is on the patterning that can be seen in contrasting types of information, not evaluators. For the evaluation of any given type of surveillance there will of course be social variation of a different sort –e.g., by age and gender. Thus those under 30 who have never lived without video cameras, airport searches and drug testing are on the average more accepting than their elders, and women, for security reasons, seem more supportive of public video surveillance than men. Surveys can of course only reveal what is asked and as Gandy notes (2003) the national surveys tend to be driven by commercial interests.


8 However these interact and common sense may lead to a change in legal status once the toothpaste goes beyond its container (note the Supreme Court concluding that the circulation of the Pentagon Papers had gone too far to be legally stopped).


9 This patterning holds for non-objectionable forms as well, for which failure to offer or ask/collect is itself a failing. Re the former note Emily Post’s advice: “women frequently ask whether they should call an unzippered fly to the wearer’s attention, unless you are a total stranger do” (1992,  p. 242).


These issues tie to broader sociology of information questions regarding norms about concealing and revealing information. (Marx 2001) Here violations may occur on the part of both the surveillance agent and the person of interest, in either failing to collect, or to offer information, as well as in taking or offering information when it is not appropriate. It is an interesting sociology of knowledge question why most academics and activists emphasize the involuntary collecting of personal information by authorities and organizations rather than their failing to gather information (e.g., inquiring about arrest history for persons working with children) or the fail to reveal and outright deception on the part of individuals when they have an obligation to tell (e.g., not informing a partner of a sexually transmitted or other disease or that a house for sale has a leaky roof) or inappropriately offering information as with public nudity, loud music or revealing intimate life details to strangers.


10 Yet such information is not only personal. Implications for groups matter as well, even if rarely acknowledged or studied (Gandy 1993, Regan 1999, Alpert 2003 ). Our language which gives us ready concepts re the individual and privacy leads us away from seeing the social and shared components and how groups may be harmed or helped.


11 The categories in table 2 for example might be further organized under some broader concept such as biography. The concepts could be more systematically related to each other. At some point combining enough shared identity elements may permit identification of a specific individual. Unexpressed attitudes and thoughts could be seen as subtypes of behavior. These differ from overt observable actions and from physical attributes such as having red hair (even here presenting natural red hair may be seen to represent a choice if the individual is aware of being able to dye hair,  shave the head or cover it with a hat). There may be disagreements about what behavior is –traveling from one location to another clearly is a kind of behavior, but what of staying in one place? Is a non-move still a move? Does it depend on the actor’s awareness of the inaction? 


12 With new technologies this is often unclear. The lines between mine-not mine, self  and other, copy and original, and the multiple meanings of public and private are increasingly blurred. Current digital rights management (DRM) controversies for example are about whether property one “owns” in the form of dvds or software can be altered at will, or must not be changed or copied without permission (Cohen, 2003).


Related controversies would likely follow the introduction of technologies for intercepting and reading brain waves and olifactors. In contrast to the “personal” property one purchases, these are personal in their emanation from the individual. They may be viewed as an element of the person even after leaving the body. Spoken and written words share something with these forms but will often be seen as less personal because willingly communicated.


13 If unobtrusive personal awareness assistance devices for recording and coding interactions become common this will likely become an issue and expectations about what can be appropriately gathered in “public” may change. Note local legislation directed against certain forms of video surveillance in public.


14 There are many situations where others have a right to access,  use and even “own” anther’s personal information. Yet the fact of their control does not then make it their “personal information” in the sense implied here. The ambiguity of  language is a poor ally here.


15 In the related case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California. 793 P2d479(1990) a patient sued over what he claimed was the appropriation of his cells for commercial use, even though what was at stake was data based on his cells, not his literal cell material. The court found against him since it claimed that a copy rather than the original material was involved.


16 The personal” remnants of course go beyond information. Note the presence of an intangible essence of the other person that remains for those who purchase (often for outrageous sums) the costumes and shoes of movies stars, original manuscripts and letters of the famous.


17 A recent court case upheld an FCC ruling that allows cell phone customers to retain their number if they change carriers within a calling area. In Japan phone numbers can be kept for life. Yet the very property definition which permits individuals to “keep” the same number might also aide in making them subject to mass communication. It is easy to imagine a society in which all persons were given a never to be changed telecommunications number at birth, and perhaps as the technology evolves, implanted  location and communication devices. The number would in one sense “belong” to the person, but with other costs, being the functional equivalent of a national id card and making the individual forever reachable, whether by friends or commercial and business interests.


18 It is curious that one has to pay for an unlisted number, while businesses pay to have their phone number listed. With respect to listed numbers one can argue that the phone company should pay the individual consumer for being able to market their number in directories or deliver as part of a Caller-ID service.

19 Some analysts (Laudon 1996, Rule & Hunter 2001) argue that the right to control  the commercial use of one’s image or of copyrighted material could be applied to other kinds of information associated with the individual such as secondary uses of information on purchases.


20 Conversely at other times it is the very impersonality of the treatment received that engenders resentment  the treating of  (or communications to) the individual in a non-distinctive (universalistic”) fashion. See the discussion in notes 47 and 48. This dynamic makes life interesting and also works against normative consistency, or at least general standards.


21 Thus some forms of communication (whatever their content) are viewed as personal –a sealed letter, a diary or a hushed conversation. This can be seen as a diagonal axis cutting across the types in Table 1. These types are defined by the presumed intent of the communicator. Their designation as a private form is distinct from whether or not we would view the content as personal and/or private. Contrast information about health status or one’s favorite sports team sent via a post card, as against a sealed envelope. When there is unwarranted access to private means of communication, even with the most impersonal, general and inane of content, most persons would perceive a violation. Conversely when private matters are inadvertently revealed in public, manners often require looking the other way or acting as if nothing had happened. The unexpected content can lead to a redefinition of the form.


Or consider being secretly observed in a dressing room or taking a shower. What a hidden observer is likely to see will rarely be damaging to the observed person in any material or strategic sense. What generally matters is not what is seen (although scars, tattoos, or a colostomy are an exception), but the shock of being observed. This involves the means aspect and the violation of trust.


22 These retain their moral, if not their existential, status as private even when revealed as at a nude beach.


23 Of course the mere fact of artifactuality ought not to be automatically disqualifying. Many social artifacts have a persuasive logical and empirical validity. The trick is agreeing on and measuring the standards. Those in the business of educating others to the social construction of reality do a grave disservice when they treat all constructions as morally and pragmatically equal.


24 This issue of fit may also appear for the deceased. Note the controversy over the Mormon church’s practice of posthumously baptizing some Jewish Holocaust victims.  New York Times, 4/11/04.


25 The electronic and other spoors left by, and taken from,, the individual in connection with aggregate data  about the behavior of  categories of individual suggests an alternative simulated version of the person. In Germany this is referred to as a “shadow self”. Poster writes of a  ‘data double’ reduced to pure information. Poster (1990) .


26 According to Associated Press (March 9, 2004)  background screening software ($39.77) is now being sold as a consumer product and a self check service will be available soon.  Such checks (for a fee) are said to give workers the opportunity to spot and correct problems in their personal records, as well as helping employers. Information brokers often stress that they are simply conveyor belts and not liable for mistakes. Some might see more than a little chutzpa here in a company’s profiting from taking an individual’s information, not sharing profits and then selling it back to the individual. (Marx 1989)


27 In a literal sense this is a structure or form issue rather than a content issue. Yet there is ambiguity in talking about “kinds of information” since this may include  one or both.


28 Sartre (1993) captures the security aspect of being seen in noting, "What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches cracking behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable; that I have a body which can be hurt; that I occupy a place and I cannot in any case escape from this space in which I am without defense in short, I am seen."  Yet this fear requires awareness, as does the challenging of the danger, elements that are lacking when the surveillance is transparent or unseen, as is increasingly the case.


29 Erving Goffman, in stressing the situationally specific nature of identity, would likely reject the idea of a core identity. However my discussion begins with the objective facts of birth, not the individual’s perception or social offerings regarding this.


30 With respecct to accuracy and currency note multiple listings for the same person as a result of the inclusion of former or several  residences, failure to purge the deceased, or the exclusion of those with unlisted numbers and  those using pseudonyms.


Marc Pairman, the lead singer of a group called “Gary Marx and the Sisters of Mercy”, calls himself Gary Marx. It is also possible that some of those using the name Marc Pairman might not really be him.


Entering one’s name into any people locator search engine often suggests others with the same name. According to as of the beginning of 2003 there were 94 Gary Marx’s and 7 Gary T. Marx’s in the United States, although as far as I can determine, only one with my middle name.

31 While one must be very wary of any single determinism, this is a nice example of a social process in which a technical development drives a social development. Note the emergence of law enforcement, military and other DNA and fingerprint and voice print data bases. For effective use the unidentified DNA (and other) data "requires" organizational data bases tied to known individuals. Here we see an example of surveillance creep or and often gallup.

 Of course where there is an accessible likely suspect a broad data base is not required. Yet legal and moral authority and logistic accessibility are still required to carry out the match. An alternative is trickery. The ingenious discovery means of those involved in paternity suits or who otherwise seek to use DNA to prove something is the stuff of the 6 o’clock news and murder mysteries. This varies from going through the garbage to planting spent condoms.

32 Some jurisdictions such as New York have “John Doe” programs in which charges can be filed based on DNA profiles alone, even though there is as yet no name to link the information to. This is intended to permit prosecution should such a link be established.  New York Times, 8/5/03.


33 An interesting ecology is that of when a transaction requires a fixed street address rather than a p.o. box, phone number or credit card (or no identifier) and how this changes as people become more mobile and (perhaps) less locatable/identified with a particular fixed location.  This involves wrinkles of the broader anonymity issue.

34 An account for internet access or a cell phone will likely require a geographical address, yet these also can be unconnected. The cell phone may involve at least 3 kinds of geographical information registration of the device, point at which a call originates and locations during a mobile call. The ability to access an internet account from anywhere involves a similar registration/use disjuncture. However the former is not always required. Thus in the interest of anonymity and to encourage use, some public libraries permit internet access without first identifying (by address as well as name) internet users.


35 Consider a means used against the theft of cable tv signals. A New York City cable provider used a roving truck with a remote sensor to identify homes illicitly using its’ services. It then sent a signal that made reception impossible. The core identity of the violators was not known. However when the thieves brought the equipment to be repaired they faced arrest.


36   Of course address, like name, need not be unique and can be complicated by multiple users of the same address or phone number. A major inference error here is to assume that the person in whose name a means of communication (phone, computer, typewriter (required in some authoritarian settings)  or a vehicle is registered is in fact the one using it as captured by surveillance. Absent other verification (e.g., biometric or encryption signature that may not be the case.  Addresses and devices may be shared and they may be deceptively and fraudulently used.

37 Some municipalities earned revenue by selling the information. However after a California murderer used  it to locate a victim, Congress required states to restrict it.


38  After court cases in which information on testing was subpoenaed, some AIDS testing agencies stopped asking for any personal identification, relying entirely on a number for those to be tested.


39 Computer specialists disagree about whether true anonymity is ever possible. Even with the destruction of records, trace elements may remain on a hard drive that sophisticated software can reclaim. Computer messages are relayed through many networks that are in principle identifiable.


40 This form of “knowing” about or imagining the other may also have negative social effects as with stalking.  Such cases do not lend themselves easily to regulation given their subjective quality and First Amendment protections. (Marx 2002)

41 Goffman (1963) offers interesting examples of doctors able to recognize visible symptoms of a disease perhaps “seen”, but “unrecognized” by others. Some detectives have an uncanny ability to infer salient facts and even identity from a crime pattern. This typification skill with respect to lack of “real” knowledge characterizes many occupations as either sport (taxi drivers who infer a lot about their passengers from their manner, appearance and when and where they are picked up to where they are going) or economic imperative (sales persons ability to locate, read and manage customers).


42 This is one of the challenges of masking identification for research purposes when the number gets too small. (National Research Council 1993).


43 Specificity within a category also effects this (living in Chicago as against an actual address). Yet factors beyond specificity can shape attitudes here. As noted, in many contexts having general knowledge (e.g., regarding an individual’s politics, religion and life style, can also be considered very personal). When this information is stigmatizing or can be used by an adversary to strategic advantage, control over even general information will be usually be sought.


44 See for example Pager’s (2003) experiment demonstrating the costs of  a criminal record  and Li, K. (1996) on insurance companies and suspected homosexuals.


45 In an ironic twist here, it is not the quality of the information or the means that she finds upsetting. In most contexts when someone has personal information about us the issues are 1) is it legitimate for them to know what they know? 2) is what they know accurate? In the film’s case it is neither. But rather than these, in the film’s case it is the impersonal de-individuating presumption of knowing about her as a result of his knowledge of cultural patterns.


46 This assertion of individualism can also be seen in the film “The Big Lebowski”  when the character played by Jeff Huddleston addresses the Jeff Bridges character as “Mr. Lebowski”, and the Bridges character asserting his distinctiveness replies, “No, manyou’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude, or his Dudeness, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”


47 More personal information may however be involved if the assumptions are wrong –note male insufficiency as in the case of the protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, or as we move from the general to more precise, differentiating or unique anatomical details (e.g., the gender and sexuality cases considered in Bloom 2003). It seems curious that the term “privates” is used to refer to matters of anatomy that are in one sense quite public in being widely known about, or at least presumed to be known about.


The distinction Goffman makes (1963) between virtual (imputed general assumptions about a category the individual is presumed to reflect) and actual identity is useful here.


48 The ethical implications of these paid informers who, as part of a representative sample revealing information about themselves, are also presumed to be revealing information about others with their characteristics has rarely been noted. This also ties to free choice and commodity issues and to how unrestricted the marketplace should be. In the U.S. people are not allowed to sell themselves into slavery or to sell body parts. Is there a point beyond which people should not be permitted to provide personal information, even if they wish to, and are paid for doing so? When the information provided can be generalized to others the case for restrictions is increased. This ties to DNA and family members. In offering DNA an individual is also offering information about others in his or her family, presumably without their permission.


49 We need to differentiate the video means of data collection from the visual as one of the senses. In considering how surveillance is viewed both the means of data collection and the sense used in comprehending it matter. For example, reading a purloined document is visual, but not pictorial, regardless of whether or not it is a photo copy.  Sound in contrast seems conceptually less complicated.


50 They can be “enriched” and more invasive when other material is added.


51 In absolute terms however the latter have the potential to reveal far more information given the vast number of things that can be measured. They can also pierce the veil of deceptive appearances. However, I am considering perceptions here, rather than a presumed literal correlation between invasiveness as measured in some objective way and the evaluation of it. The representational closeness of surveillance data to the way we perceive data from others (absent technical aids) would seem more important to evaluation than the absolute amount of data.


52 The research  is referred to by Sachs  (2003) who give examples of how the deaf may use sight to hear and the blind use the other senses to visualize.


53 There is an obvious need to study cultural variation, not only within national subcultures, but across societies as well. In China to judge from the questions I was asked when I taught there, it is appropriate and perhaps even a sign of respect to ask how old a person is, and there seems no inhibition on asking a stranger how much money he earns. In Europe it is much less common to ask those one has just met about their family status such as married, divorced, or if they have children. The information that is required or prohibited from a vitae offers another striking contrast. A nice study comparative study could be (and most likely has been) done of Miss Manners type books across cultures.


54 The logic here is that the unwarranted taking of information in actually reflecting the person would be seen as worse than an abstract category applied by others about which the individual can say, “that’s not me.” However one could as well argue the opposite. The latter in being artificial and in less realistically, or at least less self-evidently, claming to represent the person, is worse than the seeming more real natural information.


This is an aspect of backstage behavior. The individual’s sense of a unique self is partly found in the less than perfect fit between cultural expectations and the situation (regarding both attitudes and behavior). Goffman’s role distance and the idea of identity lying in the cracks of the roles we play fit here.


55 Claims about the past are at least subject to an empirical standard, however musty memories and degradable material artifacts may become. Past failings may also be more excusable than  those predicted for the future (e.g., “she has learned her lesson,” “he has grown up,” “that mistake was paid for”).


Disagreements about an individual’s future are more speculative and in professional contexts often come down to the claims of rival experts representing different interests.


56 Here it is not only the content but that the person is revealed to be a liar.


57 Consistent with this argument for example is the work of Stone-Romero, Stone and Hyatt (2003)  on employee attitudes toward the invasiveness of 12 personnel selection procedures. They find invasiveness was positively associated with the potential for error, probes of the body and mind, an implication of distrust,  the generation of unease in the employee and the potential to reveal negative information. It was negatively associated with factors such as the technique’s transparency, room for the positive management of self information and predictive of actual job performance.


58 Consider for example the lessened likelihood of bystander intervention (Latane and Darley  1968)


59 Increased freedom of choice can exist with increased volume and intensity of surveillance. This is merely to suggest that the kinds of information individuals wish to keep private changes with social and cultural change, not that the overall amount we wish to conceal declines. That is an empirical question which must take into account the absolute amount there is to be known about a person, a factor that has markedly increased and continues to increase in recent centuries. New diagnostic means involving DNA and predictive profiles for at risk individuals may create new forms of stigma. The case for a relative increase in surveillance is dependent on  the ratios of what there is to be known of interest, what the technology is capable of and the actual extent of its application.


60 The technical issues here appear to be easier to solve than the ethical or legal.  In such face transplants a living person would receive the face of a dead donor. This has a more literal quality than retouching a digital image or altering a record of DNA or a fingerprint, since the very template by which the original was “re-cognized” disappears. Because of the centrality of the face to identity and recognition by others, additional issues are raised beyond those of organ transplants.


Unlike the films “Face Off” in which an actor is given the face of another actor or the less complicated “Dark Passagecurrent techniques involve facial reconstruction. Means of personal identification from face, to DNA and fingerprints, to signature to voice to gait to some type of knowledge or performance  can be usefully contrasted with respect to their ease of alteration and validity and the resulting social practices dependent on these.


61  Sex change operations are at one extreme. But more common are the new identities created through the increased intermarriage of ethnically, racially, religiously and nationally distinct groups. An increase in children of mixed marriages, those holding duo-citizenship, immigration, tourism and communities in cyberspace illustrate this. New categories for marginal, hybrid and anomalous groups will appear. As just one example take the millions of Americans who, as products of a mixed marriage, consider themselves both Christian and Jewish, White and Black or Asian and Hispanic.


62 For example in one large case in 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service seized 2 million fake government ID cards including resident alien cards, immigration forms, driver's licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, traveler's checks and printing equipment.


The use of false identification in many settings is not dependent on such counterfeit documents. There is a wonderful line in The Big Lebowski in which when a police officer asks the Dude for his identification and he has only his Ralph's supermarket card to offer (we don't see what name is actually on it). My local supermarket card identifies me as Georg Simmel. I also get junk mail for Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. Of course misidentifcation can be accidental. Consider an article on privacy and technology with the headline, “America’s March Toward Karl Marx’ Maximum Security Society.” The Huntsville City Times, August 15, 1999. Max Weber did write about the “iron cage of bureaucracy”, but the concept of the maximum security society came a century after Karl Marx.


Research on the accuracy of information provided to web cites as a condition for entry and on warranty cards, suggest a high rate of falsification. For consumer items this can have costs should one seek to return an item when the warranty card sent in does not contain one’s real name. Using someone else’s medical insurance card for treatment may similarly have complicating implications for later use by the genuine user, not to mention harm from lack of a valid record to the pretender.


63 An interesting cultural counter to this anticipated by Andy Warhol is the reverse desire to reveal as seen in popular talk shows and celebrity tell all books and public relations activities.


64 Many seeming choices are deceptive and the failure to provide personal information, even if it is optional, may have costs. For example, a notice to applicants accompanying a request for personal information from the Social Security Administration states, “while it is voluntary for you to furnish this information, we may not be able to pay benefits to your spouse unless you give us the information.”

Back to Main Page  |  Top  |  Bibliography  |  Notes

You are visitor number to this page since July 24, 2004.