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The surveillance society


Note: As a way of kicking off my new Znet blog, I’m reposting some old entries from my wordpress blog. You can view the original entry here.


So having spent the major part of my day reading the 102 page report from the Information Commisioner’s Office on “The surveillance society” (PDF), I have to write something about it.

I think for me the most significant idea in the report was about profiling, or what is called social sorting. I want to explain the danger here with reference to an unrelated example, which is racial profiling in crime detection.

Suppose it were the case that black men were twice as likely to be drug users than white men. In fact, it is more like the other way round, but for the purposes of this example bear with me. Now, if the police have enough manpower to stop and search a fixed number of people for drugs, and they are judged according to the number of successful arrests they make (which are reasonable assumptions in this society), what is their best strategy? The answer is simple, they should devote all their manpower to stopping and searching black men. For the purposes of the argument, assume that stop and search is the only way drug use is uncovered. This would lead to a scenario where everyone who was in prison for drug use was black, even though they only formed a tiny percentage of the drug users in the country (because the black population of the UK is only 2%).

In this scenario, have the police done wrong? I think the answer is that given their mandate they haven’t done wrong. They have behaved in a way that objectively speaking maximises the number of drug users arrested. If they had a racially neutral policy, and stopped and searched black men as frequently as white men (for the purposes of this argument, I am ignoring women and non-whites who aren’t black to make it simpler), then they would arrest half as many people (and therefore leave many more potentially dangerous drug users free). If they did this, they would be criticised.

So what’s the problem? There are two. Firstly, this is manifestly not fair. A sign of a fair system would be if the proportion of black and white drug users in prison was proportionate to the proportion of black and white drug users in society as a whole. Secondly, this system leads to a further injustice in that white people would be free to use drugs (or at least carry them) without fear of being arrested, the law would essentially not apply to them.

So what’s the resolution? Well, that’s more difficult. If they were to do something like stopping and searching black men twice as often as white men then there would be some white drug users in prison and some black drug users, which would disguise the problem but not actually address it (whilst also decreasing the number of arrests made). I believe the correct answer here is that stop and search is not actually an appropriate strategy for the police to use on either black men or white men, and they should pursue people based on evidence. There are other critical points you could make though, for example why should we judge the police based on how many successful arrests of drug users they make?

Now how does this relate to the surveillance society? Well, one of the things that happens in the surveillance society is that based on the large amounts of information that businesses and the state gather on us, they profile us and assign us to categories. These categories affect our subsequent interactions with them. For example, as the report mentions, call centres will now make you wait for a longer or shorter period of time based on whether or not you are a good customer for the company (spend lots) or a bad one (spend little, don’t pay your bills on time). When this sort of profiling becomes pervasive, a sharp division will emerge between those who are profiled as good or profitable, and those who are profiled as bad. As the example above indicates, rational assessment will actually mean that this division will become disproportionate to the actual differences, further pushing it to the extremes. Life for the worse off will become even worse, and life for the better off will become even better.

The report puts it like this:

Social sorting increasingly defines surveillance society. It affords different opportunities to different groups and often amounts to subtle and sometimes unintended ways of ordering societies, making policy without democratic debate. As the section on urban infrastructure shows, invisible, taken-for-granted systems of congestion charging and intelligent public transit both sort the city into groups that can travel relatively freely and others who find travel difficult and at the same time can be used for crime control and national security. No one has voted for such systems. They come about through processes of joined-up government, utility and services outsourcing, pressure rom technology corporations and the ascendancy of actuarial practices.

So the surveillance society masks fundamental changes in the way we live our lives. These changes are equivalent to a hidden change in the aims of society. Since businesses must pursue profit over any public good, these powerful new techniques for profit maximisation will lead to a society which values profit above anything else in all spheres of life. Let me eludicate that.

At the moment, it would be unthinkable to designate a large percentage of the population as ‘the underclass’ and deny them access to – or at least degrade the quality of their access to – the products and services we all enjoy. But, in the surveillance society this happens in fact if not in name whether we like it or not, because it is more profitable for them to do so, and they have the ability.

Now I wanted to draw attention to this particular aspect of the surveillance society because it is one that is not so often talked about. People tend to be more interested in the abuse of surveillance systems rather than what happens when they function properly, which is just as bad if not worse.

There are various other points I’d love to make having read the report, but I don’t want this entry to go on forever. So instead I’ll say: if you have a whole day free go and read the report. If you have an hour free, read a bit of it. There is a section which first describes a hypothetical week in the life of a family in 2006, and then one in 2016. The first is based on surveillance systems that currently exist (with footnotes to explain what they are), and the second is based on those that have been proposed and on identifiable trends (also with footnotes explaining who has proposed them or where the trend was identified). Both descriptions are quite frightening.

I may write a followup post at some point with further thoughts on the report, and some views about campaigning against the surveillance society.

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