Surveillance Society – Is It an Invasion?

In today’s world, in-store video-surveillance, closed-circuit television (CCTV), metal detectors, fingerprinting, drug and DNA testing, pre-employment personality and health screening, credit cards, cookies, spyware and more generally searchable databases are all technologies that make anonymity almost completely impossible. This phenomenon is known as Surveillance Society. David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (2001:2). The expression “surveillance society” was coined by sociologist Gary Marx (1985) as “all-encompassing use of computer surveillance technology in modern society for total social control”.


Darin Barney (2004) outlines the characteristics of the network society as follows:

  • It is based on informational capitalism, that is, where economic activity is centered on the production and distribution of knowledge to foster innovation, flexibility and increased technological control over production processes (such as computerization of assembly lines).
  • It is economically global. Companies, regions, cities, workplaces, markets and individual workers become flexible nodes. This economic arrangement puts labor at a disadvantage vis a vis capital since the latter flows more easily than the former. Labor is territorial and grounded whereas capital flows cross the globe through electronic networks.
  • Human experience is based on ‘timeless time’ and ‘space of flows’ to use Castells’s formulation. Through electronic communication networks, human experience becomes detached from time and place. Individuals can communicate instantly across the globe. Unprecedented volumes of information are transmitted worldwide at a high speed. And as Barney puts it, the network society is ‘always on.’ Where people are geographically located becomes less important as their embeddedness in communication flows.
  • Politically, power in the network society is defined as access to networks and control over flows. Being a node in a network is a source of power but one that involves a certain level of affluence to build the relevant infrastructure. In the network society, not all nodes are equal, a core node exercises more power than a semi-peripheral or peripheral node, whether we are talking about countries, firms, regions or individuals. Similarly, financial flows are more powerful than flows of ideas that fuel contemporary social movements (such the environmental or anti-globalization movements). Certain nodes are primarily producers (such as corporations) whereas others are mainly recipients (such as individuals using their internet access). Production involves more power than reception. Some nodes have access to more information (governments and corporations) than others (citizens). Finally, certain nodes (such as internet service providers) control what volume and quality of information other nodes (users) receive. In other words, access and control are sources of power and stratification in the network society which is by no means egalitarian. 
  • These lines of division over access and control, as well as between local roots and global flows are the main sources of conflict in the network society. Most human experience is still rooted in local conditions and environment. However, people also see themselves at the mercy of networks in which they have no access and global flows over which they have no control. This conflict is at the heart of the anti-globalization movement.[1]

The reasons for the surveillance society fall into two categories. First, there is the concern for the citizens’ welfare and security but second, the desire to shape and influence (consumer) behaviors. Of course, the concept in itself may strike you as an invasion, but after all, the concept of privacy is subjective and individual.

In the past, the state had almost full monopoly over surveillance, because of bureaucratic reasons and law enforcement purposes. Nowadays, information flows easily and employers can require criminal background checks on their prospected future employees. Especially in U.S., after the 9/11 incidents, phone and cable companies are required to turn over costumer information to the government.

Nowadays, surveillance has spread to the private area as well as gone worldwide but not because technology is accessible, as it may seem. Social components are the main drive behind the development of surveillance. The principal such element is the thing that David Lyon call “vanishing bodies.” Vanishing bodies refers to the way that a critical piece of our movements and associations happen at the separation, without individuals really being in one another’s vicinity. Electronic associations and exchanges make bodies vanish. Internet shopping or texting, are all exercises without physical space and bodies. However, this possibility raises issues of trust: how does the employer know that the employee working from home is really doing her job and how does a store know you have enough credit when you pay with your card? Correspondingly, with more individuals moving around the world (business voyagers, travelers, monetary and political evacuees and transients), travel regions, for example, airplane terminal terminals have increased their observation contraption so as to stay informed concerning progressively versatile bodies. The trust issue has gotten to be particularly pivotal in the setting of trepidation of terrorist assaults.

In the meantime, our bodies have ended up expanded objects of surveillance, predominantly through biometrics – the scope of innovation used to gauge human physical qualities for distinguishing proof purposes. Whether we need to or not, our bodies are significant suppliers of observation information. The most customary type of biometrics is fingerprinting and pee and blood tests. However change in therapeutic and observation innovation have opened a whole new field of information that can be removed from the body without our insight and for law authorization purposes as well as a feature of regular reconnaissance. The body can be utilized as a manifestation of recognizable proof: some universal air terminals use retinal sweep on outside guests. Companies utilize voice acknowledgment programming. The body itself turns into a watchword. Shopping center and open spots use facial acknowledgment programming for correlation with feature observation pictures. Superintendents have entry to restorative record to focus the potential wellbeing dangers postured by forthcoming representatives. They might likewise force imperatives on their workers’ bodies by obliging that representatives get fit or not smoke. Obviously, all these distinctive advancements are delivered by privately owned businesses in such a blasting business, to the point that it is conceivable to discuss the ascent of a security-mechanical complex.

The development of the danger society is another significant social component that advanced the development of surveillance. As we have seen, globalization includes dangers: political, financial, social and natural. The worldwide money related business is, by definition, shaky so speculators depend on arranged databases that can issue them ongoing data on the distinctive world stock trades and additionally on wide scopes of financial pointers. Politically, significant zones of the world are in mayhem and apprehensions of worldwide terrorism are high. To screen and control such dangers, center nations have created method for observing correspondences on a worldwide scale – a procedure called “dataveillance”. Dataveillance alludes to the “methodical observing of individuals’ activities or interchanges through the use of data innovation” (Clarke, 1988). Goliath databases have been made to catch and procedure phone discussions, faxes and messages that contain certain words or begin in parts of the world identified with terrorism. Worldwide offices, for example, INTERPOL, are accountable for such worldwide observation. At last, numerous exploration organizations around the globe screen different environmental phenomena, for example, an Earth-wide temperature boost or the gap in the ozone layer to foresee future natural conditions and their social effect.

To conclude, most surveillance, open or private, is done with the purpose of overseeing hazard as the more data is accumulated by the right offices, the more we can diminish vulnerabilities. However, according to GlobalSociology, issues of privacy then become central on a global scale, so much that a non-governmental organization deals with such matters. Privacy International is a network of non-governmental organizations dedicated to protecting the privacy of citizens against invasions from governments and corporations.

Privacy International – created in 1990 – is the product of growing privacy concerns since the late 1980s and the explosion of electronic communication technologies. PI comprises dozens of privacy experts from all parts of the world who monitor actions by governments and corporations to invade their citizens’ privacy. This involves reviewing legislations and corporate decisions by computer specialists as well as jurists.

Among its activities, PI has programs promoting freedom of information and expression, as well as laws protecting data privacy but also program to limit widespread surveillance through national ID cards, access to DNA and genetic data. It also monitors activities conducted under the guise of fighting terrorism.



by Georgiana Bigea


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