The modern Surveillance State

February 5, 2008 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Dandelion by KimI came across an interesting article by Jack M. Balkin, a Professor at Yale University Law School. I’ve been pondering, as I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions now, what the link might be between surveillance and democracy (a train of thought sparked by Dave Snowden, which will lead soon to a post of my current thoughts about surveillance through the lens of complexity).

I do think that to a large extent surveillance tools have become democratized. So for example, we can take a photo using our camera phone of police roughing up someone and we can distribute videos on YouTube. But I also believe that the notion of the modern security state has morphed into the surveillance state. So I found Balkin’s article very interesting.

He and his co-authors isolate three types of surveillance:

  • democratic (or participatory) surveillance
  • distributed surveillance
  • metasurveillance

Let’s look at each in turn. Democratic surveillance is about having the tools of surveillance in the hands of citizens who can control not only what to watch but also watching government and officials who might be misbehaving. So having a camera phone and recording a police arrest would fall into this category. A CCTV camera that actually captures a suspect’s image or confirms that someone was really at an ATM at the time they were accused of committing a crime would also fall into this category. Of course, a camera phone can also record someone’s private moments, which end up on YouTube, against the wishes of a person. This is not democratic surveillance.

Distributed surveillance is about having the tools of surveillance distributed widely in many different locations, for different purposes and using different applications. So street cams, CCTV in buildings, hidden spyware that reports on what people are downloading are examples of distributed surveillance at national or local levels. The average citizen does not participate in this sort of surveillance. It’s about control not democratizing.

Metasurveillance is watching the watchers. Surveilling the act of surveillance or information gathering. So reporting requirements that make businesses accountable for the data they are collecting and how it is used is an example of metasurveillance.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that democratic surveillance goes towards protecting or securing civil liberties but there is a dark side to this type of surveillance as I’ve blogged about many times. A world in which personal data and your image is freely available could see you the victim of identity theft. We only have to recall to mind the recent fiasco of TV presenter, Jeremy Clarkson (what a goose). The Top Gear host rubbished the story about the loss of 25 million people’s personal details on some computer discs that went AWOL in the post. So he published his Barclay’s bank account details in his newspaper column to prove that nothing would happen other than people being able to put money into his account. Wrong. Turns out a canny dude set up a direct debit which fleeced his account of £500, which ended up in the coffers of a charity. And to add insult to injury, the UK’s Data Protection Act stops Clarkson and his bank from finding out who the culprit was.

Distributed surveillance, particularly spyware, has its dangers. It can watch everything you search for on the internet; it can slow your computer to a dead crawl; and spyware can leave a backdoor open for hackers to waltz through. And this is why governments must regulate in this area and hold businesses publicly accountable.

Metasurveillance is where I think there is the best chance for the modern surveillance state (and we are already in the grip of the modern surveillance state). We need to ensure that those surveilling us are themselves monitored or regulated. Balkin suggests an ombudsman or trusted agents who would make use of distributed surveillance techniques to watch those who engage in surveillance.


Entry filed under: Surveillance society.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JJ  |  February 14, 2008 at 3:22 am

    interesting! On the UK Privacy Act, however, it would be great to know more. I worked behind the scenes looking at implications for the introduction of Freedom of Information – Protection of Privacy legislation in British Columbia (some years back!). An early observation was that the expertise built in the front and back teams on issues, rights, conundrums, careful balancing of weighty issues–this would essentially disappear after passing the legislation and implementation would be in the hands of people witout nuanced views and grasp of complex issues. In many jurisdictions, the result has been a blunt approach that restricts access where no such restriction was intended (your law enforcement angle is one) to litigation around perceived “rights” that directly impinge on the rights of others. Gotta love people, eh?!

  • 2. Joel Teo  |  February 16, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I think with the increasing specture of terrorism across most of the commonwealth states and the US, the increasing use of such technolgoy is only set to increase.


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