The Surveillance Society


Working Paper:

Kim Taipale, ["The Surveillance Society"]

"The Eye of God: The Social Construction of Omniveillance"

(NB: I use the term "surveillance" herein expansively to include both the tradiitional notion of observing activities directly as well as the more contemporary notion of monitoring activities by analysis of data trails, which is sometimes referred to as dataveillance. Although I continue to use the term "surveillance" in these general descriptions, I have previously introduced the term "omniveillance" (Taipale 1999, 2003, 2006) to reflect the phenomenonal ubiquity of both surveillance and dataveillance as inherent characteristics of modern information cultures.)

Keywords: surveillance, dataveillance, omniveillance, social control, social sorting, audit, privacy, privacy enhancing technology (PET), data mining, observability, behavior predictability, identity, dividualization, borders, freedom.


For our purposes, a surveillance society is one based on maintaining social control or order through the collection, sharing, and analysis of information about populations in order to govern their activities.

Surveillance is a social-technical security and control response to individual privacy and anonymity, and to the delocalization of borders. (Thus, it is also a characteristic of globalization, see, e.g., the Panoptic Global Security State)

Surveillance societies do not monitor people qua individuals but operate through dissembling and reassembling data points (resulting in "dividualization"). Their subject matter is not the person but coded information flows -- "digital dossiers," "data doubles," or "virtual personages" -- which are ordered through audit and filtering.

Surveillance is a feature of modernity; a networked information-based society is inherently a surveillance society in which resources and services (hence consumer satisfaction, power and control) are allocated by abstracted classification and automated personalization.

Surveillance in technologically-advanced societies is both panoptic and synoptic in practice and is partially motivated by (and is generally acquiesced in because of) the manifest human fetish for scopophilia.

Surveillance societies seek to impose control and accountability through risk management and audit based in part on a "trusted systems" paradigm, in which surveillance and certifiable reputation are used as proxies for counterparty trust (including through authenticated "identity(ies)").

Surveillance in these systems is a method of social sorting and audit based on perceived risk; a technique of power that shapes destinies based on what is measurable (thus, auditable or filterable) in a particular system.

The surveillance society is a metaphor for the ongoing transformation of modern information-based societies from a notional Beccarian ("punishment") model of social order based on accountability for deviant actions after they occur, see Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishment (1764), first, to a Foucauldian ("disciplinary") model based on authorization, preemption, and general social compliance through ubiquitous preventative surveillance and control through system constraints, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975, Alan Sheridan, tr., 1977, 1995), and, ultimately, to a complex Deleuzian ("control") model based increasingly on seduction and enticement through manipulation of opportunity and desire rather than just coercion or constraint, see Gilles Deleuze, Postscript to the Societies of Control, L'Autre Journal, No. 1 (May 1990).

In this emergent model, social control and security mechanisms and interventions at all levels are geared not towards policing but to risk and opportunity management through surveillance, exchange of information, auditing, communication, classification, and filtering. Of pressing philosophical and political concern is the potential affects on freedom, in particular from dividualization (the limiting of opportunities through fragmentation) and its corollary contrapose, the autonomy trap (the limiting of opportunities through finely-tuned personalizaton).

In these circumstances, "privacy" is not a sufficient policy response (nor effective strategy of resistance) to surveillance since the ultimate outcome of a modern, technology-enabled surveillance society is not to uncover or expose deviance after it occurs (that is, not to make things 'unsecret') but rather to eliminate opportunities for deviance by managing opportunities.

This paper discusses these issues.

Related material:

CAS publications.

Background material:

Cesare Beccaria, ON CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1764) (ISBN:0915145979) (the Enlightment and criminal law reform).

Jeremy Bentham, THE PANOPTICON LETTERS (1787) (setting out a plan of construction and management for prisons and other institutional buildings in which the central authority can observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not. Control is then maintained through the mental uncertainty that in itself becomes a crucial instrument of discipline). See also, Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham) (ISBN:0198205163).

John Austin, THE PROVIDENCE OF JURISPRUDENCE DETERMINED (1832) (ISBN:0521447569) ("positive laws" versus moral principles).

Franz Kafka, THE TRIAL (1925) (ISBN:0805209999) (Joseph K. is arrested, tried and executed for an unspecified crime) (subtext examines the clash of traditional law based on morality with modern law based on rules).

B. Traven, DAS TOTENSCHIFF (1926); THE DEATH SHIP (tr. 1934) (ISBN:1556521103) (Kafkaesque journey of American sailor who has lost his identity papers):

Official: “You ought to have some papers to show who you are.”
Protagonist: “I do not need any papers. I know who I am.”
Official: “Maybe so. But others are also interested in who you are.”

George Orwell, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1949) (ISBN:0899663680) (depicts a totalitarian society of the future, ruled by an omnipotent dictator called Big Brother. In this society, called Oceania, people’s thoughts and actions are continuously monitored.  The term Big Brother has subsequently been used to refer to any ruler or government that invades the privacy of its citizens).

Jacques Ellul, THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY (1964) (ISBN:0394703901) (postulating that human activity has been technicized -- rendered efficient -- and, thus, diminished in the process).

John Rawls, A THEORY OF JUSTICE (1971) (ISBN:0674000781) (justice as fairness, "veil of ignorance", the liberty principle, and the difference principle) (See also, Rawls, JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS: A Restatement (2001) (ISBN:0674005112).

Michel Foucault, DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: THE BIRTH OF THE PRISON (1975) (ISBN:0679752552) (arguing that the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner's body to his soul. Foucault invokes Bentham's panopticon as metaphor for the whole of modern "disciplinary" societies in which control is maintained through pervasive inclinations to observe and normalize).

David Burnham, THE RISE OF THE COMPUTER STATE (1983) (ISBN:0394514378) (early examiniation of the consequences of a modern computerized state in which information is easily aggregated and maintained by large bureaucracies).

BRAZIL (MCA-Universal 1985) (Terry Gilliam, dir.) (ASIN:0780022181) (Kafka meets Monty Python in a complex story reflecting on industrialization, terrorism, government control and bureaucracy, and technology gone wrong. A minor bureaucrat in a retro-future dystopia overcome by bureaucratic inefficiency tries to correct an administrative error and himself becomes an enemy of the state):

Protagonist: “Do you want to see my papers?”
Official: “No need, sir”
Protagonist: “But I could be anyone.”
Official: “No you couldn’t, sir, this is [the Ministry of] Information Retrieval.”

Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on Control Societies, L'Autre Journal, No. 1 (May 1990) (tranlated and reprinted in CTRL [SPACE] infra).

David Lyon, THE ELECTRONIC EYE (1994) (ISBN:0816625158) (how electronic surveillance orders society).

GATTACA (Columbia 1997) (explores how bio-technlogy can and does determine human destiny).

David Brin, THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY (1998) (ISBN:0738201448) (arguing for "reciprical transparency," not secrecy, to counter ubiquitous surveillance technology).

Stephen M. Feldman, AMERICAN LEGAL THOUGHT FROM PREMODERNISM TO POSTMODERNISM (2000) (ISBN:0195109678) (tracing the evolution of American legal thought).

MINORITY REPORT (20th Century Fox 2002) (Steven Spielberg, dir.) (ASIN:B00005JL78) ("precogs" predict who will commit murder in the future thus allowing for their preemptive arrest).

CTRL [SPACE]: RHETORIC OF SURVEILLANCE FROM BENTHAM TO BIG BROTHER (Thomas Y. Levin, et al., eds., MIT Press, 2002) (ISBN:0262621657) (CTRL [SPACE] is a catalog of surveillance art, containing images and essays relating to surveillance. The catalog includes essays by philosophers Michel Foucault (The Eye of Power: A Conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot), Paul Virilio (The Visual Crash), Jean Baudrillard (Telemorphosis), Gilles Deleuze (Postscript on Control Societies), Victor Burgin, and Slavoj Zizek, among others. CTRL [SPACE] also includes images from many well-known, and lesser known, Western artists in the emerging genre of surveillance art, including Sophie Calle, Diller + Scofidio, Dan Graham, Pierre Huyghe, Michael Klier, Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Thomas Ruff, Julia Scher, Andy Warhol and Peter Weibel, among others.)

David Lyon, SURVEILLANCE AS SOCIAL SORTING (2003) (ISBN:0415278732) (the politics and ethics of categorization; surveillance as a means of creating and maintaining social differences by verifying identities and assessing risk).

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, CONTROL AND FREEDOM (2006) (ISBN:0262033321) (exploring the paradoxical narratives of control and freedom in a networked world).