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Researcher explores 'culture of surveillance' in the U.S.

Mon, 11/25/2013

LAWRENCE — Recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been analyzing the communication records of all U.S. citizens have many talking about the topic of “mass surveillance” by the government.

But a University of Kansas sociologist who has been documenting what he calls our “culture of surveillance” for nearly 20 years argues that these developments are part of deeper social and cultural changes going on for quite some time.

“As important and dramatic as the NSA programs may be, we have had this tendency to equate surveillance as exclusively a practice of the state,” said William Staples, the 2013 E. Jackson Baur Professor and founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at KU. "But surveillance as a social control feature of our daily lives has become pervasive and arguably just as problematic.”

In the recently released second edition of his book “Everyday Surveillance,” Staples focuses his attention on the relatively mundane techniques of keeping a close watch of people — what he has dubbed the “Tiny Brothers” — that are increasingly present in the workplace, school, home and community. He shows how our bodies, activities and movements are tracked by a host of public but even more likely private organizations — both with and without our consent — through Internet use, cell phones, video cameras, credit cards, license plate readers, loyalty shopping cards and more. 

Staples explains how these seemingly mundane practices, justified for a host of reasons, are used by employers, corporations and public officials to influence our choices, keep us in line, monitor our performance, gather knowledge about us and, in some cases, exact penalties. How do they do this? By producing a form of information asymmetry where one person, group or organization gains important information about a person and uses it as leverage to control or modify that person’s behavior.

For example, more than 70 percent of major U.S. employers engage in some form of electronic monitoring of workers, tracking their email, Internet use and whereabouts with GPS devices. And about 90 percent of U.S. manufacturers test workers for drugs. 

Some school districts have issued radio-frequency identification (RFID) student badges that monitor pupils’ movements on campus. Those same kids may be tested for drug and alcohol use, while new “Student Information Systems” collect minute details of their school performance, attendance and behavior, then make that information available to parents in real-time on the Internet.

Data brokers and “aggregators” vacuum up volumes of information about us from hundreds of sources. One company alone has constructed the world’s largest consumer database containing detailed information on nearly 500 million consumers worldwide and sells it to other businesses so potential “high-value” customers can be targeted for certain advertising campaigns.

Add to these forms of scrutiny transit swipe-cards, electronic tolling devices, smart phone location beacons, card-key access points, Internet hot spots, and our activities and visibility to others are being systematically recorded and stored.

“It is really these techniques that are the building blocks of the ‘mass surveillance’ of the populace,” Staples said, “and they are likely to have real consequences in our lives.”

How so?

“Beyond issues of personal privacy, information asymmetry puts one at a disadvantage in dealing with organizations, but surveillance also contributes to what we call  ‘social sorting,’” he said. “This is the process of using surveillance-generated data to sort people into different categories of say, worth or risk, in ways that have real effects on their life chances.

“In the 12 years since I wrote the first edition of ‘Everyday Surveillance,’ we’ve seen a staggering proliferation of these kinds of practices and technologies,” Staples said. “I believe that we are indeed building a culture of surveillance when we infuse daily life with practices that constantly assess our behavior, judge our performance, account for our whereabouts, determine our ‘value’ and challenge our personal integrity.”

But what about the NSA wiretapping story that broke earlier this year? How does that fit into all this?

“One of the more fascinating and yet troubling developments in this post-9/11 period is how state security agencies have been able to turn to corporations for their help in providing the detailed information about us they needed,” he said. “We might call this ‘Big Brother meets his Tiny Brothers.’ Rather than building a new and politically dubious surveillance network, as many as 50 telecommunications, Internet and data brokerage companies were coerced, paid or simply offered up the data they have been collecting for some time. This partnership, if you will, points to a re-formation of state and corporate power and contributes to a deepening of our culture of surveillance.”



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