The inequalities of state surveillance: Everywhere, anywhere

McIntosh, 2009

Photograph: Flickr / Jonathan McIntosh

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, right? This is a common snappy retort frequently uttered by those attempting to dismiss the exclamations over the erosion of privacy in this age of drag-net surveillance and big data-fuelled algorithms. Such a statement suggests a great deal about how the speaker views the ‘right’ to privacy, data and its collection and the role of the state and its agencies. While I find moral arguments regarding privacy and debates over the role of the state personally engaging, they are very difficult to translate and package succinctly into discourse intelligible for the ‘average’ citizen.

Instead, I wish to highlight an issue related to large scale electronic surveillance, directly linking to arguments centred on privacy, freedom, and the inherent wrongness of state intrusion. This issue is the inequality of state surveillance. That is, how the panoptic gaze of state surveillance, whilst constant and unrelenting, is systematically more intensely focused on certain individuals and groups than others. Ultimately, this can entail the constant reproduction of long-term social differences. So whilst the reader may (or may not) have nothing to hide (and thus nothing to fear), other groups may not have such a privilege. Surveillance is a means by which dominant norms are implicitly imposed on individuals and groups within society. Those who deviate from such norms, be it something as simple as not being white, can expect a greater focus placed upon them.

These discriminatory practices are rendered legitimate through the authority of statistics. As the modern state, with its various intelligence tendrils, collects ever greater amounts of data, its ability to categorise and sort individuals into specific classifications increases. From these various classificatory groupings discrimination occurs. Statistical discrimination is a core mechanism of surveillance and such an example would be the ‘stop and search’ routines performed by police officers. Such procedures disproportionately target black males based on the attributes of the group they belong to, rather than legitimate suspicion, whilst simultaneously ignoring the conditions behind crime in a given area.

These practices of marginalisation then disseminate into shared social understandings on how to view certain groups of people based on their clothing, ethnicity, gender and location. These understandings are rarely positive and rather affix characteristics of risk and danger. This results in practices that otherwise would be labelled as racial discrimination, being rendered legitimate on the grounds of misleading statistics gained through different modes of data gathering.

The popular conceptualisation of ‘terrorism = Islam’ perpetuated within the media and low-level discourse within society is likewise systematically imbued within mechanisms of surveillance. The statistical justification for such a bias is skewed through the politicised categorisation of what it means to be a ‘terrorist’ and what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ act. It appears it is a definitional requirement for a terrorist to be a Muslim. Similar threats perpetrated by individuals who are not a part of Islam are defined as something else. Frequently, greater panoptic focus is placed on areas of community for Muslims. Mosques are popular locations under the guise of preventing terrorism with no concern given to the racial bias and the harmful connotations of reproducing the representation of Islam as the ‘Other’ and a source of fear for the ‘Self’. Such state-backed production of representations only serves to antagonise relations amongst the state and society as well as between groups within that society.

Surveillance is not a neutral phenomenon nor constant in its effects. Those who have no need for privacy should consider such a state-of-being as a privilege. Those who need privacy are often vulnerable, disadvantaged or ostracised. Privacy is a component of positive freedom and resistance, just because you have no need for such trivialities does not mean others do not.