Why do we submit to the ‘surveillance society’?

Britain's over-surveillance is about more than spycams and ID cards - it is part of a broader culture of deference to authority.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Britain’s information commissioner Richard Thomas announced this week that we are sleep-walking into a surveillance society. A team of researchers, the Surveillance Studies Network, has presented Thomas with a report that highlights the extent of surveillance, including everything from Britain’s surfeit of closed-circuit television cameras (cctv) to the collection of data through supermarket loyalty cards (1). While many of us were unaware till now that the information commissioner existed (he is mostly responsible for data protection), it seems that somebody somewhere knows a great deal about all of us.

As we go about our business in public spaces, when we use our credit cards or even read online articles about surveillance, information about us and our activities is routinely gathered by a raft of public and private agencies and companies. This is not news to all of us. Only last month, spiked’s Brendan O’Neill wrote in the New Statesman about how Britain is the most spied-upon nation in the world (2), while there have long been concerns about the proposal to introduce identity cards. Nonetheless, since the information commissioner’s ‘revelation’, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media, mostly centring on whether all this is evidence of a vast conspiracy, or whether the ‘surveillance society’ is simply the unintended consequence of the accumulation of otherwise innocuous individual measures.

There is such a thing as the surveillance society, but it is neither the outcome of a sinister plot nor the entirely benign result of attempts to make us safer or to make things more convenient. Rather, it is a reflection of a deeply conformist and conservative political culture. And far from Britain sleepwalking into this surveillance society, the desire to monitor, survey, and keep tabs on the public has been one of the most pronounced features of our political culture for some time. Indeed, I can’t help but reflect that back in 1997 when New Labour first came to power, I wrote a pamphlet, Surveillance and the City, highlighting not only the growth of cctv but the development of less obvious if rather more coercive measures such as the Community Safety Order, precursor to the ASBO, designed to keep miscreants in line with Tony Blair’s shiny ‘New Britain’.

Indeed, it is important to recognise that surveillance is not just about high-tech cameras, satellites, and sophisticated computer programmes. The surveillance society is primarily about a state of mind according to which it is better to be safe than sorry, better that the authorities are able to keep an eye on us and keep things in check. New Labour’s concern with crime was always intimately bound up with its broader vision of how to remake society, one in which traditional social problems were recast as ‘causes of crime’, and surveillance and policing thus presented (admittedly with imperfect logic) as means of achieving social progress. Starting from the premise that society was fragmented, atomised and bereft of traditional social bonds, New Labour set out to heal the nation by such varied means as driving intimidating teens from public spaces, giving parenting lessons to their mothers, and enforcing ‘good neighbour contracts’. The idea was to engender community spirit and civil behaviour by any means necessary.

The result has been instead to institutionalise the idea that it is the authorities who are responsible for the well-being of the community. When children misbehave, the answer is official action, disputes between neighbours must be referred to the local authority and so on. It is not that ‘they’ are intently spying on us, so much as that we have been trained to defer to authority rather than taking responsibility for ourselves. This is really a new model of citizenship, according to which the proper course of action is always to involve the proper authorities. And it is this diminished model of citizenship that accounts for the widespread acceptance not just of cctv, but of any other form of surveillance that seems to bring us closer to someone in a position of authority.

Perhaps the most insidious example of this mentality has barely been recognised as an aspect of the surveillance society at all. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which recently passed through Parliament, obliges anyone who will have any contact with children to undergo vetting by the criminal records bureau (3). Not only teachers and professional sports coaches, but volunteers, friends of foster parents and anyone who wants to take a group of their children’s friends on a trip will have to be checked against a central database and get an official OK before they are considered fit to spend time with children.

In a surveillance society, personal trust built up over years counts less than a bureaucratic thumbs up. The assumption that informal checks or references, much less personal trust, are inadequate security for our children, is axiomatic of the surveillance society. Without an official stamp, such things are worthless. Thus, informal ties are actually undermined by deference to the authorities. The problem here is not new technology, or even snooping officials, but a political culture that takes for granted a lack of basic solidarity among members of the public. Citizenship consequently is seen primarily as a relationship with the authorities rather than with each other. It is time to wake up, all right, not to the surveillance society, but to the reality that it is we, the public, who are responsible for ourselves.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the Manifesto Club, which has produced a new report, The Case Against Vetting.

(1) Britain is ‘surveillance society’, BBC News, 2 Novermber 2006

(2) Watching you watching me, New Statesman, 2 October 2006

(3) See The case against vetting, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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