Free Term Paper on Technological Surveillance

Technological SurveillanceSurveillance, especially technological surveillance, has been and continues to be one of the most controversial of tactics being used by law enforcement authorities today. In the world after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have been bombarded with new concerns of terrorism that have caused us to rethink our positions concerning what we will accept for safety and security in a seemingly more threatening world than we knew prior to 9/11. We have decided in some cases to allow practices that were once considered invasions of our privacy, as it is contended that they contribute immensely to our safety and security. In other cases, however, we have decided that while our safety and security are of the utmost importance, certain practices reach beyond the scope of what is acceptable and infringe upon our most basic guarantees granted by the various legal instruments that have survived the test of time.

Surveillance has been a popular tactic for police, security, and other public safety personnel for decades. Since the earliest forms of surveillance were utilized, which primarily relied on humans for their operations, both professionals and the public have supported the tactic of monitoring people, places, and things and gathering information in a variety of settings. As technology has advanced, so have the forms of surveillance. Beginning with Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) during World War I, technological surveillance has expanded into a virtual catalog of equipment of varying levels of complexity for numerous uses.


I. Background

II. Types of Technological Surveillance

III. Technological Surveillance Theories and Research over Time

IV. Conclusion

I. Background

Technological Surveillance (TS) refers to technologies that are used for the sole purpose of identification, monitoring, tracking, and control of assets, individuals, and information. Although surveillance can also refer to simple, relatively no- or low-technology methods such as direct observation, it is used in this context to describe the various technological methods used for the purpose of recording information. The literal translation of the word surveillance (in French) is “watching over,” and the term is often used to describe various forms of observation.

There are many views as to the application and effectiveness of TS, especially in a post-9/11 environment. For example, many often argue that in order to have greater safety and security, we must place a greater reliance on the use of TS. In other words, they accept the notion that there is a trade-off between privacy and enhanced security. Others believe that there does not necessarily have to be a trade-off or sacrifice between increased surveillance and security and individuals’ civil liberties. Still others argue that these are actually the wrong questions to ask and serve more to cloud the real issue, which is how surveillance serves as a trade-off that promotes “spatial segregation and social inequality” (Monahan 2006).

A distinction must be made with regard to the specific type of technology being used. Based upon the works of both David Lyon (2006) in his article “Surveillance after September 11, 2001” and Kirstie Ball and Frank Webster (2003) in their text, The Intensification of Surveillance, technological surveillance can be categorized into four distinct typologies: categorical suspicion, categorical seduction, categorical care, and categorical exposure.

Categorical suspicion relates specifically to surveillance that focuses on the identification of threats to law and order by common criminals, organized crime, dissidents, and terrorists. Categorical seduction addresses the tactics used by marketers and their attempts to study and predict customer behavior in attempts to hone their advertising and methods for luring in customers. Categorical care surveillance is used primarily by the health and welfare services, for example, to manage health care records in an attempt to monitor “at-risk” groups, study geographic health trends, and collect and manage extensive records of clients. Finally, categorical exposure was coined to describe the development of the ever-increasing intrusive character of the media. This is best illustrated by the tabloid press and the antics of many in the media, such as those that contributed to the automobile crash and subsequent death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

II. Types of Technological Surveillance

There are numerous technologies used for surveillance applications, such as eavesdropping, wiretapping, closed circuit television, global positioning systems, computer surveillance, and radio frequency identification device (RFID) tracking. Eavesdropping refers to the process of gaining intelligence through the interception of communications. This interception can include audio, visual, and data signals from various electronic devices. Generally, eavesdropping consists of three principal elements: a pickup device, transmission link, and listening post. The pickup device, usually a microphone or video camera, picks up sound or video and converts them to electronic impulses. The transmission link can be a radio frequency transmission or wire that transmits the impulses to a listening post. Finally, a listening post is a secure area where the signals can be monitored, recorded, or retransmitted to another area for processing (Rao 1999).

Wiretapping is the monitoring of telephone and Internet conversations by a third party, often by covert means. Lawful interception refers to legalized wiretapping by law enforcement or other recognized governmental authorities. In 1994, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) was passed. This legislation gave law enforcement agencies the authority to place wiretaps on new digital wireless networks. CALEA also requires carriers to make their digital networks able to support law enforcement wiretapping activities (CALEA 2007). A covert listening device (commonly referred to as a “bug”) is a combination of a miniature radio transmitter and a microphone. Bugs come in various shapes and sizes and can be used for numerous applications. While the original purpose of a bug was to relay sound, the miniaturization of technology has allowed modern bugs to carry television signals. Bugs can be as small as the buttons on a shirt, although these have limited power and operational life.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) is a visual surveillance technology designed for monitoring a variety of environments and activities. CCTV systems typically involve a fixed (or “dedicated”) communications link between cameras and monitors. The limits of CCTV are constantly extended. Originally installed to deter burglary, assault, and car theft, in practice most camera systems have been used to combat “antisocial behavior,” including many such minor offenses as littering, urinating in public, traffic violations, obstruction, drunkenness, and evading meters in town parking lots (Davies 1996, 183).

A global positioning system (GPS) tracking unit determines the precise location of a vehicle, person, or other asset to which it is attached and has the ability to record the position of the asset at regular intervals. The recorded location data can be stored within the tracking unit, or it may be transmitted to a central location database, or Internet-connected computer. This allows the asset’s location to be displayed against a map backdrop either in real time or when analyzing the track later, using customized software (Clothier 2004).

A bait car is a vehicle that has been equipped by a law enforcement agency with the intent of capturing car thieves. Special features may include bulletproof glass; automatic door locks; video cameras that record audio, time, and date; and the ability to disable the engine remotely. Some law enforcement agencies have credited bait-car programs with reducing auto thefts by more than 25 percent. Additionally, insurance companies have begun buying cars for police, because over a million automobiles are stolen each year in the United States (Eisler 2005).

Surveillance aircraft are used for monitoring activity from the sky. Although these aircraft play a major role in defense operations, they are also being used in the civilian world for applications such as mapping, traffic monitoring, and geological surveys. These aircraft have also been used by law enforcement for border surveillance to prevent smuggling and illegal migration. Surveillance aircraft can be both manned or unmanned planes, such as the unmanned aerial vehicle. A UAV is a powered aerial vehicle sustained in flight by aerodynamic lift and guided without an on-board crew. It can fl y autonomously or be piloted remotely.

Computer surveillance is the act of monitoring computer activity without the user’s knowledge by accessing the computer itself. The majority of computers in the United States are equipped with network connections that allow access to data stored on the machine. Additionally, malicious software can be installed on the machine that provides information on the user’s activity. One way to conduct computer surveillance is through packet sniffing, whereby data traffic is monitored coming into and out of a computer or network. Also, a keystroke logger can be implanted in the keyboard, perhaps broadcasting the keystroke sequence for pickup elsewhere. Finally, with the miniaturization of electronics, hidden cameras can be used to monitor keystrokes and display images (Bonsor, n.d.).

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking devices can be embedded in clothing or in devices or objects that are carried, such as building access badges. The RFID’s capabilities set this technology apart from traditional identification devices such as bar codes. For example, RFID tags can be read at a longer distance, because this technology does not require a line of sight. Additionally, the technology is relatively invisible to others (Roberti 2005).

III. Technological Surveillance Theories and Research over Time

Although surveillance as a topic for research and study has increased in popularity and interest in just the years following the events of 9/11, this is not a new area of study. What has changed are the advances in various technology systems and the scope and reach of technological surveillance (Webster and Robins 1986). Some of the early researchers that began to examine the implications of TS included Michel Foucault, who is best known for his book titled Discipline and Punish, published (in English) in 1979 and credited with being critical to the dialogue and debate surrounding electronic surveillance. Others that followed criticized Foucault and suggested that a greater analysis and understanding of contemporary electronic technology-dependent surveillance was needed (Zuboff 1988).

During this earlier period of debate there was a discussion of Foucault’s panopticon (Foucaultian panopticon) and its application to the design and construction of prisons. He presented this approach as a model for understanding the operation of power in contemporary society (Foucault 1979). Foucault’s work, along with the 17th-century writings of Jeremy Bentham on the panopticon (1995), resulted in the panopticon being considered the leading scholarly model or metaphor for analyzing surveillance.

Traditionally, panoptic surveillance related primarily to the monitoring of people rather than more general surveillance. For example, panoptic surveillance has not been used to describe other types of technological surveillance, such as environmental surveillance. Environmental surveillance involves the use of satellites and imaging, which now allows for very detailed analysis of both dramatic changes to the earth’s surface following tsunamis as well as subtle changes that measure migration or water levels. Therefore it has been suggested that panoptic surveillance has not kept pace with the significant changes taking place in technological surveillance, such as the use of sensors, satellites, biometric devices, DNA analysis, chemical profiling, and nanotechnology, all of which have been described as tangentially panoptic. Another limitation of panoptic surveillance is that is does not account for the role or importance of the watchers. Nevertheless, this postpanoptic surveillance theory remains an important historical model for the early debate on surveillance and continues to be referred to in ongoing technological surveillance research studies (Haggerty 2006).

Another theory worth noting is the “space and time in surveillance theory,” which suggests that there are “zones of indistinction” that unlike the postpanoptic surveillance theory, which was a distinct and bounded area, there is a shift from spaces of surveillance as territories to deterritorialization and time is seen not as an outcome of computerization or social sorting in “real time” (Bogard 2006). In other words, surveillance is important not in what it captures in real time but for its importance in “capturing” the future before it’s “already over” (Genesko and Thompson 2006). For example, casinos use facial recognition software to identify known suspects who have been banned because of techniques used to “cheat the system.”

Authors such as Elmer and Opel (2006) make the argument that we now live in a “survivor society” in which citizens are called upon to suspend disbelief, a preemptive requirement to act, a movement from “what if” scenarios to “what then” scenarios that accept that the U.S. administration has things well under control. They argue that using a “what then” approach, rather than a “what if” approach, presupposes an event will occur rather than the latter approach, which allows for the possibility of preventing an event from occurring at all. The “what then” approach removes all control from the citizenry and assumes that in spite of all of our best efforts we cannot prevent the inevitable, and therefore a higher authority must intervene that knows what is in the best interest of the society or organization. Space and time surveillance theorists argue that technological surveillance functions in an environment in which evidence is not needed to act or set national policy. The danger with this theory is that because the future is “deemed inevitable,” instead of a forecasting model approach, we now rely on an approach that is not focused on tracking and monitoring behavior but that stymies social critique and political debate.

Moving from the theoretical studies and research to the more applied research and evaluation, studies reveal that there has been little work done to evaluate the overall effectiveness of many of the technological surveillance systems. We need only turn to the United Kingdom (UK) to look for research on the effectiveness and widespread use of CCTV systems. The tipping point, if you will, for the greatest expanse and proliferation of the use of CCTV in the UK, came after the 1993 James Bulger killing. In this case two 10-year-old boys kidnapped and killed two-year-old James Bulger. The shopping mall where James was kidnapped had CCTV in place and the two older boys were seen leading him by the hand out of the mall. At the time of this incident there was broad sweeping support for the proliferation of public surveillance, and since that time the UK now has one of the most extensive and high-density CCTV systems in the world. There are estimated to be nearly 4 million cameras throughout the UK, and approximately half a million of those cameras are located in London (Norris 2002).

In spite of the widespread use of CCTV in the UK, much of the research that has been done on the effectiveness of this type of technological surveillance system has been inconclusive. For example, a recent study on CCTV in the UK by the Christian Science Monitor suggests that after 10 years of research projects at a publicly funded expense of $420 million dollars, the research does not support the use of CCTV. Moreover, the study concluded that although cameras were effective in reducing vehicular crime, they had little to no effect on other crimes; in fact, street lighting appeared to be more effective in reducing other crimes (Rice-Oxley 2004).

Research on CCTV and other TS systems in the United States is not as prevalent because the use of CCTV is not as widespread, nor is it a public initiative. The private sector, the military, and the government primarily use CCTV in the United States In cases where it is used by public safety organizations, and more specifically law enforcement, there is little to no evaluation conducted to assess its effectiveness. The study that is most often cited as demonstrating that the use and application of CCTV was not effective in reducing crime was the study by Musheno, Levine, and Palumbo (1978) of low-income housing. They concluded that the use of video surveillance in New York City’s public housing did not reduce crime or fear of crime. According to these authors, the system failed on two levels, conceptual deficiencies and technical limitations.

In a more recent study of a public housing complex in Buffalo, New York, researchers found that drug dealers were not deterred by the CCTV system in place but instead used the system to assist in the expansion of their operation by monitoring the arrival of customers and watching for local police (Herbeck 2004). Another recent study demonstrated benefits of a CCTV traffic light system in Washington, D.C., which reduced red light traffic violations by 63 percent. With the expansion of technological surveillance in the United States following 9/11, there will be greater opportunities to research and evaluate the many systems that are being put into place.

IV. Conclusion

Knowing the theoretical underpinnings of any technology usually benefits the user and those taking advantage of the technology. Research helps consumers understand how the technology improves and in some cases is made more versatile for numerous situations. As we frantically searched for reactive tactics and procedures to allow us to improve the safety and security after 9/11, knowing the range of availability with respect to different types for different circumstances gave us some sense of solace as we struggled with living in our “new” world. Recognizing the evolution of technological surveillance and understanding that, with time, it will only continue to improve and reach beyond what we know now also gives us a sense of comfort as we wait for whatever challenges we may face. At the same time, however, we are reminded as to just how much intrusion we will or can allow in order to maintain those privileges that we so cherish as the basic foundations that make us Americans, in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Now we struggle with these issues while we anxiously await the next threat to our safety and security in our ever-changing world. Our immediate reactions to incidents tend to be radical, and once time passes, we take a step back and reconsider what is best to accomplish the goals of our public safety and law enforcement professionals. We expect to be saddled with decisions like this for the remainder of time. In retrospect, it is necessary, or better yet imperative, that we challenge ourselves with the wealth of information that we are afforded and make the best decision, for greater good, to maintain what makes us Americans in the nation we so highly value.


Kathryn E. Scarborough, Pamela A. Collins, and Ryan K. Baggett



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