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surveillance: some questions « Previous | |Next »
July 15, 2009

Are we “sleepwalking into” a surveillance society with the current emphasis on using surveillance in the form of closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras, DNA databases, Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID), and the collection and retention of purchasing behavior in corporate databases, that have been put in place to keep us "safe" and "secure" from disorder, crime and terrorism?

The surveillance society is very evident and upfront in Spooks currently showing on ABC TV. The spooks (MI5) have the technology to monitor everything in the name of national security.

How do we understand privacy in this context of ever increasing surveillance in the absence of human rights legislation in Australia, and the determination of conservatives in Australia to ensure that there is no human rights legislation passed by the commonwealth government to act as a counter to the coercive force of hegemonic power?

Does privacy in this context just mean “going about our business undisturbed"? Or does it mean, as N. Katherine Hayles points out:

the presumption of freedom from having our affairs overlooked by others, absent compelling reasons to the contrary; it means having access to data that has been collected on us by interested parties; it means having control over how data about our private lives is used and by whom; it means the right to establish boundaries between public and private spaces that are lawfully enforced and respected by everyone, including functionaries at every level of government, from town councils to national agencies, and at every level of corporate activity, from local stores to transnational databases.

The utilitarians would say that, since the benefits from surveillance outweigh the harms to privacy, increased surveillance whereby citizens are disciplined through a real time monitoring of their behaviors as they move with apparent freedom through space is in the public interest.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:30 PM | | Comments (15)


I have more concerns with corporate databases then government ones, although the way that Western governments behave, I would be wary about giving the blighters too much information either.

My wife loves CCTV, she feels much safer in public spaces where there's CCTV.

If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.. blah, blah, dribble, jabber, blah.

Is it odd that neither I, nor any of my workmates, feel the need to be kept "safe and secure" from whatever it is we're supposed to be afraid of?

In Australia it seems that traders are aware that potential consumers may be deterred from commercial centres by the presence of low-level incivilities such as litter, beggars and gangs of youths. Those representing commercial interests seek to remove these ‘undesirable’ others from these areas through means such as CCTV surveillance.

A possible future scenario in Woolworths or Coles:

The Gillette smart shelf links a video camera to RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, floor sensors, PDAs in the hands of store detectives and monitors at checkout. RFID tags were put on the packaging on individual packages of Gillette razors which are small and expensive and therefore a target for shoplifters. In Tesco the packages with their radio tags were displayed on a so called smart shelf. If a customer removed a package of razors from the smart shelf the system would detect this through a proximity detector linked to the RFID chip and covertly take a photograph of the person.

A photograph of the suspect would be sent to the PDA device of store detectives. On the way to the checkout the suspect’s position could be tracked through the RFID tags on the razors by sensors on the floor and relayed to store detectives. If the person went to the checkout with the razors then another photo was taken for comparison and then the person was removed from the active list on the system. Otherwise, the person could be tracked through the store and observed to see if he or she tried to leave the premises without paying.

that case is one of covert surveillance based on the assumption of guilt.

Peter's scenario is extremely unlikely because, under those conditions, shoplifting would be practically IMPOSSIBLE. An individual would have no choice but to comply. No choice.

I love Spooks, but there are a couple of things wrong with it.

1. The Spooky people and British government go out of their way to avoid spreading fear in the population. Real life is rather different.

2. The Spooky dudes wouldn't blast the crap out of some innocent guy on a train by mistake.

Surveillance itself isn't anywhere near as bad as its misuse. The razor blade example is interesting. It can be justified on the grounds that some people have bad intentions, but assumes that the people using the surveillance technology are not among those with bad intentions. Despite everything we know about human nature.

the pervasiveness and depth of the surveillance that is openly shown in Spooks is not a problem?

This TV series shows that the British and the Americans are monitoring bodies moving on the street and all communications in everyday life. The surveillance state has arrived in the UK and the US--though less so here.

"The Spooky people and British government go out of their way to avoid spreading fear in the population..."

Yet all the "drama" is beamed into our lounge rooms every week. Ironic innit?


I was thinking of Brent's wife and surveillance technologies like baby monitors, intensive care technologies. I would advocate for better surveillance technologies in prisons and transport vans with regard to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The surveillance of the general population portrayed in Spooks is scary. If you were living in England, what would bother you more, that MI5 can do this, or that Rupert Murdoch can? Personally I'd be more bothered about Rupert Murdoch, but I'm not of Middle Eastern appearance.

Not to worry. The goodies always win, so we're safe.

The Age quotes Deputy Chief Commissioner Kieran Walshe saying assailants in Melbourne were ignoring the closed circuit TV cameras that had proliferated around the city.

The level of violence has certainly increased dramatically over time. Just the level of violence that people are undertaking and inflicting on other people is quite disturbing. If we look at the CCTV that's out there, it's been very beneficial to use in being able to solve some of these matters. One of the things that disturbs me a little bit is that people just have a disregard for CCTV. They don't think it is going to capture them.

He adds:
It's certainly not having the deterrent effect I hoped ... having said that, I still think having CCTV around in public places is the way to go. We've just got to promote it as a deterrent. We've got to let people know that if they do these sorts of things they are going to get caught.

So much for safety in Melbourne.

okay, the power of surveillance also works at a micro level (and not just as a top down instrument deployed by from the authoritarian state), and it can be productive.

"Not to worry. The goodies always win, so we're safe."

But the goodies always win because:

a. There are always fanatical badies to defeat


b. The goodies keep us safe by using technology to it's fullest.

So I still need to be afraid... but glad that the goodies are protecting me. (But afraid).

That's about it. What if the current good boss of the goodies retires and his replacement is like a Bond film baddie?

I'm reminded of Gary's thinking on the camera. It wasn't designed with surveillance in mind, yet a bloke can't walk around in public with a camera these days without being accused of being a bloke with a camera. A kiddy fiddler in other words.

It's not the technologies but the people using them, and since we're entirely untrustworthy as a species, we have a problem.

Actually WE are utterly untrustworthy... it's "them" we should be worried about.

Wicked, they are!