Surveillance and Society
Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2005.

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A Belorussian-language translation by Mille Eriksen

A Swedish-language translation by Weronika Pawlak

A Czech-language translation by Barbora Lebedova

By Gary T. Marx

This article offers a broad overview and introduction.

Traditional Surveillance

An organized crime figure is sentenced to prison based on telephone wiretaps. A member of a protest group is discovered to be a police informer. These are instances of traditional surveillance --defined by the dictionary as, “close observation, especially of a suspected person”.

Yet surveillance goes far beyond its’ popular association with crime and national security. To varying degrees it is a property of any social system --from two friends to a workplace to government. Consider for example a supervisor monitoring an employee’s productivity; a doctor assessing the health of a patient; a parent observing his child at play in the park; or the driver of a speeding car asked to show her driver’s license. Each of these also involves surveillance.

Information boundaries and contests are found in all societies and beyond that in all living systems. Humans are curious and also seek to protect their informational borders. To survive, individuals and groups engage in, and guard against, surveillance. Seeking information about others (whether within, or beyond one’s group) is characteristic of all societies. However the form, content and rules of surveillance vary considerably --from relying on informers, to intercepting smoke signals, to taking satellite photographs.

In the 15th century religious surveillance was a powerful and dominant form. This involved the search for heretics, devils and witches, as well as the more routine policing of religious consciousness, rituals and rules (e.g., adultery and wedlock). Religious organizations also kept basic records of births, marriages, baptisms and deaths.

In the 16th century, with the appearance and growth of the embryonic nation-state, which had both new needs and a developing capacity to gather and use information, political surveillance became increasingly important relative to religious surveillance. Over the next several centuries there was a gradual move to a “policed” society in which agents of the state and the economy came to exercise control over ever-wider social, geographical and temporal areas. Forms such as an expanded census, police and other registries, identity documents and inspections appeared which blurred the line between direct political surveillance and a neutral (even in some ways) more benign, governance or administration. Such forms were used for taxation, conscription, law enforcement, border control (both immigration and emigration), and later to determine citizenship, eligibility for democratic participation and in social planning. In the 19th and 20th centuries with the growth of the factory system, national and international economies, bureaucracy and the regulated and welfare states, the content of surveillance expanded yet again to the collection of detailed personal information in order to enhance productivity and commerce, to protect public health, to determine conformity with an ever-increasing number of laws and regulations and to determine eligibility for various welfare and intervention programs such as Social Security and the protection of children. Government uses in turn have been supplemented (and on any quantitative scale likely overtaken) by contemporary private sector uses of surveillance at work, in the market place and in medical, banking and insurance settings. The contemporary commercial state with its’ emphasis on consumption is inconceivable without the massive collection of personal data. A credentialed state, bureaucratically organized around the certification of identity, experience and competence is dependent on the collection of personal information. Reliance on surveillance technologies for authenticating identity has increased as remote non face-to-face interactions across distances and interactions with strangers have increased. Modern urban society contrasts markedly with the small town or rural community where face-to-face interaction with those personally known was more common. When individuals and organizations don’t know the reputation of, or can’t be sure with whom they are dealing, there is a turn to surveillance technology to increase authenticity and accountability.

The microchip and computer are of course central to surveillance developments and in turn reflect broader social forces set in motion with industrialization. The increased availability of personal information is a tiny strand in the constant expansion in knowledge witnessed in the last two centuries, and of the centrality of information to the workings of contemporary society.

The New Surveillance

The traditional forms of surveillance noted in the opening paragraph contrast in important ways with what can be called the new surveillance, a form that became increasingly prominent toward the end of the 20th century. The new social surveillance can be defined as, "scrutiny through the use of technical means to extract or create personal or group data, whether from individuals or contexts". Examples include: video cameras; computer matching, profiling and data mining; work, computer and electronic location monitoring; DNA analysis; drug tests; brain scans for lie detection; various self-administered tests and thermal and other forms of imaging to reveal what is behind walls and enclosures.

The use of "technical means" to extract and create the information implies the ability to go beyond what is offered to the unaided senses or voluntarily reported. Much new surveillance involves an automated process and extends the senses and cognitive abilities through using material artifacts or software.

Using the broader verb “scrutinize” rather than “observe” in the definition, calls attention to the fact that contemporary forms often go beyond the visual image to involve sound, smell, motion, numbers and words. The eyes do contain the vast majority of the body's sense receptors and the visual is a master metaphor for the other senses (e.g., saying "I see" for understanding). Yet the eye as the major means of direct surveillance is increasingly joined or replaced by other means. The use of multiple senses and sources of data is an important characteristic of much of the new surveillance.

Traditionally surveillance involved close observation by a person not a machine. But with contemporary practices surveillance may be carried out from afar, as with satellite images or the remote monitoring of communications and work. Nor need it be close as in detailed, --much initial surveillance involves superficial scans looking for patterns of interest to be pursued later in greater detail. Surveillance has become both farther away and closer than previously. It occurs with sponge-like absorbency and laser-like specificity.

In a striking innovation, surveillance is also applied to contexts (geographical places and spaces, particular time periods, networks, systems and categories of person), not just to a particular person whose identity is known beforehand. For example police may focus on “hot spots” where street crimes most commonly occur or seek to follow a money trail across borders to identify drug smuggling and related criminal networks. The new surveillance technologies are often applied categorically (e.g., all employees are drug tested or travelers are searched, rather than those whom there is some reason to suspect).

Traditional surveillance often implied a non-cooperative relationship and a clear distinction between the object of surveillance and the person carrying it out. In an age of servants listening behind closed doors, binoculars and telegraph interceptions that separation made sense. It was easy to distinguish the watcher from the person watched. Yet for the new surveillance with its expanded forms of self-surveillance and cooperative surveillance, the easy distinction between agent and subject of surveillance can be blurred.

In analyzing the rise of modern forms of social control the French philosopher Michele Foucault (1977) drew upon British legal theorist Jeremy Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon. Bentham proposed a highly organized system for managing large populations within physically enclosed structures such as a prison, a factory or a school, in which authorities could see all, but not be seen. From a standpoint of social control this created uncertainty. Inmates could never be sure when they were being watched and hence through self-interest and habit it was hoped they would engage in self-discipline.

Well-publicized contemporary warnings (e.g., that an area is under video surveillance) reflect this pattern in seeking to create self-restraint. A general ethos of self-surveillance is also encouraged by the availability of products that permit individuals to test themselves (e.g., for alcohol level, blood pressure or pregnancy).

In related forms subjects may willingly cooperate –submitting to personal surveillance in order to have consumer benefits (e.g., frequent flyer and shopper discounts) or for convenience (e.g., fast track lanes on toll roads in which fees are paid in advance).

Implanted chips transmitting identity and location which were initially offered for pets, are are now available for their owners (and others) as well. In some work setting smart badges worn by individuals do the same thing, although not with the same degree of voluntarism.

The new surveillance relative to traditional surveillance has low visibility, or is invisible. Manipulation as against direct coercion has become more prominent. Monitoring may be purposefully disguised as with a video camera hidden in a teddy bear or a clock. Or it may simply come to be routinized and taken for granted as data collection is integrated into everyday activities (e.g., use of a credit card for purchases automatically conveys information about consumption, time and location).

With the trend toward ubiquitous computing, surveillance and sensors in one sense disappear into ordinary activities and objects –- cars, cell phones, toilets, buildings, clothes and even bodies. The relatively labor-intensive bar code on consumer goods which requires manually scanning may soon be replaced with inexpensive embedded RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) computer chips which can be automatically read from short distances.

The remote sensing of preferences and behavior offers many advantages such as controlling temperature and lighting in a room or reducing shipping and merchandising costs, while also generating records that can be used for surveillance.

There may be only a short interval between the discovery of the information and the automatic taking of action. The individual as a subject of data collection and analysis may also almost simultaneously become the object of an intervention, whether this involves the triggering of an alarm or the granting (or denial) of some form of access e.g., to enter a door, use a computer or make a purchase.

The new forms are relatively inexpensive per unit of data collected. Relative to traditional forms it is easy to combine visual, auditory, text and numerical data. It is relatively easier to organize, store, retrieve, analyze, send and receive data. Data are available in real time and data collection can be continuous and offer information on the past, present and future (ala statistical predictions). Simulated models of behavior are created.

The new surveillance is more comprehensive, intensive and extensive. The ratio of what the individual knows about him or herself relative to what the surveilling organization knows is lower than in the past, even if objectively much more is known.

One way to think about the topic is to note that many of the kinds of surveillance once found only in high security military and prison settings are seeping into the society at large. Are we moving toward becoming a maximum security society where ever more of our behavior is known and subject to control?

Six features of the maximum security society are 1) a dossier society in which computerized records play a major role 2) an actuarial society in which decisions are increasingly made on the basis of predictions about future behavior as a result of membership in, and comparisons to, aggregate categories 3) a suspicious society in which every one is suspected 4) an engineered society in which choices are increasingly limited and determined by the physical and social environment 5) a transparent society, in which the boundaries of time, distance, darkness, and physical barriers that traditionally protected information are weakened and 6) a self-monitored society, in which auto-surveillance plays a prominent role.

Surveillance Structures

Several kinds of social structure define surveillance relationships. There is an important difference between organizational surveillance and the non-organizational surveillance carried about by individuals.

Large organizations have become ever more important in affecting the life chances of individuals. Organizations are the driving force in the instrumental collection of personal data. At the organizational level formal surveillance involves a constituency. Constituency is used broadly to refer to those with some rule-defined relationship or potential connection to the organization, whether this involves formal membership, or merely forms of interaction with it such as renting a video or showing a passport at a border. All organizations have varying degrees of internal and external surveillance.

The many kinds of employee or inmate monitoring, such as within the “total institutions” studied by Goffman (1961), are examples of the internal constituency surveillance found in organizations. Here individuals “belong” to the organization in a double sense. They belong as members. They also in a sense are “belongings” of the organization, being directly subject to its control in ways that non-members are not. There is often a loose analogy to the ownership of property.

External constituency surveillance involves watching those who have some patterned contact with the organization, e.g., as customers, patients, malefactors or citizens subject to laws of the state, but who do not “belong” to the organization the way that an employee or inmate does. Credit card companies and banks for example monitor client transactions and also seek potential clients by mining and combining data bases. Or consider the control activities of a government agency charged with enforcing health and safety regulations. Such an organization is responsible for seeing that categories of person subject to its rules are in compliance, even though they are not members of the organization. Non-governmental organizations that audit, grant ratings, licenses and certifications have the same compliance function.

Organizations also engage in external non-constituency surveillance in monitoring their broader environment in watching other organizations and social trends. The rapidly growing field of business intelligence seeks information about competitors, social conditions and trends that may effect an organization. Industrial espionage is one variant. Planning also requires such data, although it is usually treated in the aggregate rather than in personally identifiable form. With the widespread accessibility (democratization?) of surveillance techniques and the perception that they are needed and justified, whether for protection, strategic or prurient reasons, personal surveillance, in which an individual watches another individual apart from an organizational role, is commonplace.

This may involve role relationship surveillance as with family members (parents and children, the suspicious spouse) or friends looking out for each other (e.g., monitoring location through a cell phone). Or it can involve non-role relationship surveillance, as with the free-floating activities of the voyeur whose watching is unconnected to a legitimate role.

With respect to the roles that are played we can identify the surveillance agent (watcher/observer/seeker) who desires personal information about a surveillance subject. All persons play both roles, although hardly in the same form or degree, and this shifts depending on the context and over the life cycle and as noted the roles are sometimes blurred.

Within the surveillance agent category the surveillance function may be central to the role, as with police, private detectives, spies, work supervisors and investigative reporters. Or it may simply be a peripheral part of a broader role whose main goals are elsewhere, as with check-out clerks who are trained to look for shop lifters, or dentists who are encouraged (or required) to report suspected child abuse when seeing bruises on the face.

A distinction rich with empirical and ethical implications is whether the situation involves those who are a party to the generation and collection of data (direct participants) or instead involves a third party. A third party may legitimately obtain personal information through contracting with the surveillance agent (e.g., to carry out drug tests or to purchase consumer preference lists). Or it may be obtained because confidentiality is violated by the agent, or because an outsider illegitimately obtains it (wiretaps, hacking).

The presence of third parties raises an important “secondary use” issue –that is can data collected for one purpose be used without an individual’s permission for unrelated purposes? In Europe the answer generally is “no”, although that is less the case in the United States where a much freer market in personal information exists.

An important distinction that often involves power differentials is whether the surveillance is non-reciprocal or reciprocal. The former is one-way with personal data going from the watched to the watcher (e.g., employers, merchants, police, wardens, teachers, parents). With reciprocal surveillance it is bi-directional (e.g., many conflicts, contests and recreational games).

Surveillance that is reciprocal may be asymmetrical or symmetrical with respect to means and goals. Thus in a democratic society citizens and government engage in reciprocal but distinct forms of mutual surveillance. For example citizens can watch government through Freedom of Information Requests, open hearings and meetings, and conflict of interest and other disclosures required as a condition for running for office. But citizens can not legally wire tap, carry out Fourth Amendment searches or see others’ tax returns. In bounded settings such as a protest demonstration, there may be greater equivalence with respect to particular means e.g., police and demonstrators videotaping each other.

In organizational settings, power is rarely all on one side, whatever the contours of formal authority. Lower status members are not without resources to watch their superiors and to neutralize or limit surveillance. Video and audio monitoring tools are widely available. Employees may document harassment and discrimination with a hidden recorder and file complaints that will mobilize others to scrutinize a superior.

Even with out equipment, being on the scene permits surveillance through the senses. In spite of the power differences butlers, servants and valets are often believed to know much more about their employers than the reverse, although this is not formally defined by the role.

Many settings of organizational conflict show symmetrical reciprocated surveillance in which the contending parties are roughly equivalent. Games such as poker involve this, as do some contractual agreements and treaties (e.g., the mutual deterrence of nuclear arms control sought through reciprocal watching).

Symmetrical forms may be present even in the absence of formal agreements. Spies (or more neutrally) intelligence agents, whether working for countries, companies or athletic teams are often mirror images of each other. They offensively seek to discover their opponent’s information and defensively to protect their own.

Agent-initiated surveillance, which is particularly characteristic of compliance checks such as an inspection of a truck or a boat, can be differentiated from subject-initiated surveillance such as submitting one’s transcript, undergoing osteoporosis screening or applying for a job requiring an extensive background investigation. In these cases the individual makes a claim or seeks help and essentially invites, or at least agrees to scrutiny.

With agent initiated surveillance the goals of the organization are always intended to be served. Yet this need not necessarily conflict with the interests of the subject, consider for example the protection offered by school crossing guards, or efficient library service dependent on good circulation records. Public health and medical surveillance have multiple goals, protecting the community as well as the individual. Efficiently run companies provide jobs and services. Providing a limited amount of personal information on a warranty form and having a chip record usage of an appliance such as a lawn mower or a car, may serve the interest of both consumers and businesses (e.g., being notified if the manufacturer finds a problem or offering proof of correct usage if the device fails).

Subject initiated surveillance may reflect goals that serve the interests of the initiator, but often overlap the goals of the surveilling organization. Consider some protection services which have the capability to remotely monitor home and business interiors (video, audio, heat, gas, motion detection) or health systems for remotely monitory the elderly and ill (e.g., an alarm sent if the refrigerator of a person living alone is not opened after 24 hours). As forms more likely to involve informed consent these are less controversial than secretly done agent surveillance. What is good for the organization may also be good for the individual, though that is not always the case and of course depends on the context. Social understanding and moral evaluation require attending to the varied contexts and goals of surveillance. The many settings and forms of surveillance preclude any easy explanation for what causes it. A multiplicity of causes at different levels can be identified and their relative importance varies over time and across areas and on the kind of question asked (e.g., the development of a technology, patterns of diffusion, initial adoption vs. continued use or disappearance).

Two broad opposed views of the new surveillance can be identified. One optimistically places great faith in the power of technology and welcomes ever more powerful surveillance as necessary in today’s world where efficiency is so valued and where there are a multiplicity of dangers and risks.

More pessimistic is the Frankensteinian/Luddite view that surveillance technology is inhuman, destructive of liberty and untrustworthy. Clearly surveillance is a sword with multiple edges. The area is fascinating precisely because there are no easy scientific or moral answers.

There are value conflicts and ironic conflicting needs and consequences which make it difficult to take a broad and consistent position in favor of, or against, expanding or restricting surveillance. For example we value both the individual and the community. We want both liberty and order. We seek privacy and often anonymity, but we also know that secrecy can hide dastardly deeds and that visibility can bring accountability. But too much visibility may inhibit experimentation, creativity and risk taking.

In our media-saturated society we want to be seen and to see, yet also to be left alone. We value freedom of expression and a free press but do not wish to see individuals defamed or harassed. We desire honesty in communication and also civility and diplomacy. We value the right to know, but also the right to control personal information. The broad universalistic treatment citizens expect may conflict with the efficiency driven specific treatment made possible by fine-honed personal surveillance.

Whatever action is taken there are likely costs, gains and trade-offs. At best we can hope to find a compass rather than a map and a moving equilibrium rather than a fixed point for decision making.

Surveillance practices are shaped by manners, organizational policies and laws which draw on a number of background value principles. Many of these were first expressed in the Code of Fair Information Practices developed in 1973 for the U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare. The Code offered a principle of informed consent in which the data collection is not to be done in secret, individuals are to be made aware of how it will be used, and under ideal circumstances, consent to it; a principle of inspection and correction in which individuals are entitled to know what kind of information has been collected and to offer corrections and emendations; a principle of data security in which the information will be protected and precautions must be taken to prevent misuses of the data; a principle of validity and reliability in which organizations have a responsibility to insure the appropriateness of the means used and the accuracy of the data gathered; and a principle of unitary usage in which information gathered for one purpose is not to be used for another without consent.

As new surveillance technologies and problems have appeared, additional principles have emerged. These include a principle of minimization such that only information that is directly relevant to the task at hand is gathered; a principle of restoration such that in a communications monopoly context those altering the privacy status quo should bear the cost of restoring it; a safety net or equity principle such that a minimum threshold of information should be available to all; a sanctity of the individual and dignity principle in which there are limits (even with consent) on the commodification and offering of personal information; a principle of timeliness such that data are expected to be current and information which is no longer timely should be destroyed; a principle of joint ownership of transactional data such that both parties to a data creating transaction should agree to any subsequent use of the data, including the sharing of benefits if appropriate; a principle of consistency such that broad ideals rather the specific characteristics of a technology govern surveillance practices; a principle of human review such that an automated decision is always subject to review by a person; and a principle of redress such that those subject to inappropriate surveillance have adequate mechanisms for discovering and being compensated for the harm.

Cross References

The body
Male gaze
Public sphere
Total institutions

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M. Foucault, 1977. Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon.

E. Goffman, 1961. Asylums: Essays in the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

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

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

Brinn, D. 1999. The Transparent Society. New York: Perseus.

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

Lyon, D. 2001. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Polity/Blackwell.

Marx, G. 2004. Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University Chicago Press.

Marguilis, S.T. (ed.) 2003. “Contemporary Perspectives on Privacy: Social, Psychological, Political” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 59, no. 1.

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

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

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