Australian Surveillance Studies (AusSS)

A Research Group in the Faculty of Arts and Education

 

Surveillance

Surveillance grew significantly in the post-WWII period, intensified through
developments in information and communication technology of the past few decades
and pushed deeper into everyday life in the post-9/11 period as political and public
concerns with risk, security and public safety have increasingly made surveillance a key
individual, social, corporate and political organizing practice. Despite the centrality of
surveillance to contemporary social organization, no Australian University has a
dedicated research group documenting and analysing the growth, diversity and
intensification of surveillance. Our proposal seeks to set Deakin University on the
pathway to becoming the centre of theorising and researching contemporary
surveillance in Australia and to become the Australian centre for the development of
global networks and partnerships regarding surveillance research.

Surveillance is a social process involving the gathering of many forms of data ranging
from low-level observations of individuals to high-end uses of technology with
extensive numerical and spatial coverage. Increasingly, surveillance is the preferred
solution to a range of 'social problems' (Haggerty 2009). The proposed ERG seeks to
enhance our knowledge of these processes and the implications for social, economic
and political organization. While much of the recent concern with surveillance has
focused on the technological dimensions of increasing surveillance, our research will be
all-encompassing regarding the different modes and methods of surveillance, inclusive
of the social dimensions of surveillance, receptive to the 'immense cultural and
geographic variety of surveillance' (Wood 2009: 181) and seeking to explore 'what
gains to democratic governance' (Lyon 2010: 334), including privacy enhancing
technological developments (Goold 2009), might be possible in a world of 'liquid
surveillance' (Lyon 2010) .

The growing 'surveillant assemblage' (Ericson and Haggerty 2007) cuts across so many
domains of everyday life, from customer loyalty cards, biometric devices used to access
facilities or places, e-passports and airport body scanners, workplace monitoring
systems, financial monitoring systems, product movement, e-health and e-government
programs, automatic number plate recognition systems, street surveillance CCTV
systems, ID scanners for nightclubs and bars, electronic monitoring of offenders placed
in the community, the construction of databases of 'dangerous' categories of people
such as sex offenders, national crime and forensic databases, the demand for criminal
records checks for anyone working with children current proposals for gambling
identity cards, the use of surveillance technology to quarantine welfare payments across
whole populations such as indigenous Australians subject to the Northern Territory
Intervention, through to high-end satellite surveillance associated with intelligence
processes. As the UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas (2004) suggested,
we are 'sleepwalking into the surveillance society'. Such concerns have been raised in

Australia at the commonwealth level (ALRC 2009) and state levels (for instance VLRC
2010, Parliamentary Committee on Crime Prevention 2010).
In fact, surveillance capacities and practices have become so embedded in
contemporary social relations that for some years now scholars have referred to the
emergent 'surveillance society'. For some, this has led to a focus on Orwellian notions
'Big Brother' and an attendant focus on state surveillance systems and practices.
However, more sophisticated and nuanced approaches have recognised the plural nature
of surveillance, cutting across and moving between state, private, and hybrid
surveillance.

Our use of the tern 'surveillant assemblage' rather than 'surveillance society' is a
pointer to the need to consider how diverse surveillance collection programs are now
being re-constituted through the convergence of previously separated and distinct
surveillance mechanisms. Data is increasingly reassembled across interconnected
information flows in ways that help foster a pre-cautionary logic that focuses on the
prevention of future behaviours. The potential effects of this logic are the further
fostering of suspicion, fomenting criminalization and undermining previously central
principles of criminal law (Ericson 2007 21-4). In other words, surveillance practice has
significant implications for social inclusion/exclusion, for human rights and civil
liberties and for substantive social justice.

Importantly, using the surveillant assemblage as the theoretical starting point we seek to
enhance our understanding of the nature and impact of contemporary surveillance
beyond that of the 'panopticon' (few watching the many) or the less popular
'synopticon' (Mathieson 1997, the many watching the few). The notion of assemblage
allows multiple points of mundane surveillance to be drawn together to extend each of
these countervailing approaches.


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