Searching as surveillance

August 7, 2007 at 3:00 am 2 comments

Lalida flower photo ThailandContinuing with my research into the surveillance society and our contemporary culture of fear – I’ve come across two useful resources. The first is a newly published book, Inventing Fear of Crime: Criminology and the Politics of Anxiety, by Murray Lee. It’s a book about a concept – the fear of crime, which has taken on socio-cultural meaning in late modernity. I’ll post a review once I’ve finished, but there’s an interesting reference in the Introduction to how fears abound everywhere and that we are surrounded by “ecologies of fear”. Global warming, interestingly, is included in a list of contemporary fears, along with bird flu, tsunamis, asylum seekers and terrorism. I’ll be reflecting on the global warming remark.

But I was watching a film the other night, Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis back in October 1962 and when John F Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev stared each other down. It occurred to me (and it’s hardly an original thought I’m sure but nevertheless an intriguing one) that the Cold War was an organising framework through which the populace was channeled to focus on unimagined dangers – Reds under beds; nuclear war; Communist spies and so on. Now we have the War on Terror – simply replaces Communists with terrorists – but the outcome is the same; a population fearing unimagined dangers at the hands of unseen enemies. And so the inability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity leads to a rule-based society, with technologies of surveillance and control – public webcams; micro-chipping and… engines.

Searching as surveillance is an aspect of the surveillance society I hadn’t given much thought to. Of course, we know we can Google someone and find out whatever is out there about a particular person, but when you look at search engines through a surveillance lens, you begin to see that a person’s digital life can be surveilled, whilst at the same time, the person surveilling is being surveilled.

So I came across this interesting resource, Surveillance in Searching by Anders Albrechtsland (Draft article). What I found intriguing about this article was the way it focused on Google Earth (one of the many incarnations of the Google search engine) and how a redefinition of public space is taking place. Although Google Earth’s images are apparently often up to three years old and static, the prospect of live satellite feeds is not far around the corner. An Australian company, AstroVision, is currently developing the technology that may lead to real-time high resolution images. How would live satellite streaming change our notion of public space? Would it become more Foucauldian in the sense of Government/State surveillance of citizens? Or would it provide an opportunity for a free and transparent society, where every corner of the globe is illuminated and war, poverty and environmental issues can no longer be ignored by media or interpreted by media? The truth would be out there so to speak if we had live satellite images streaming down to us and showing us illegal deforestation activities, poaching, crime and so on.

Either way, it raises another aspect of privacy that may become a future battleground: locational privacy. Should you be sunbathing in your backyard or meeting up with someone your wife or husband doesn’t know about, you probably don’t want the bright glare of a satellite booming down on you and feeding images for all the Internet to see.

Have a read of the article – it raises some extremely interesting ethical scenarios linked to the expansion of surveillance.


Entry filed under: Google, Privacy, Search engines, Surveillance society, Useful resources.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Big Gav  |  August 8, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    “Now we have the War on Terror – simply replaces Communists with terrorists – but the outcome is the same; a population fearing unimagined dangers at the hands of unseen enemies.”

    Check out Adam Curtis’ documentary series “The Power Of Nightmares” – one of the best examinations of this phenomenon (it originally started out as a history of the neoconservatives but ended up with a rather larger scope).

    That said, phantom menaces seem to have been around for a long, long time…

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  August 8, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Thx for the link Big Gav :)-


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