Increasing concern with public safety, risk management, and security in the post 9/11 era, and the development of new technologies, have led to the extension and intensification of surveillance across Europe. Surveillance is now increasingly pervasive, with citizens’ movements and activities routinely monitored through video surveillance, purchase patterns, travel cards, mobile telephony, GIS, and more. Example applications include: biometric technologies at airports (e.g. iris scans), car number plate and facial recognition systems, CCTV systems in schools and other public places, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in hospitals and for young offenders, and information chips in credit, store and ID cards. Vast amounts of personal data are collected, analysed, processed and stored by public and private agencies for reasons ranging from national security to market research. However, this surveillance is also subtle and discreet, with most people unaware that they cast a data shadow as they go about their daily lives.
These changes point to the emergence of a ‘surveillance society’, where the state, public services and private companies undertake surveillance on an unprecedented scale and where surveillance is normalised with citizens willingly acquiescing as surveillance subjects. Greater levels of surveillance are often portrayed as an acceptable cost for enhanced levels of security and more convenient services. However, despite these developments relatively little is known about the profound societal impacts of widespread surveillance on individuals, society, the democratic polity, and the evolving nature of humanity. Moreover, a number of concerns have emerged, including; the effects on privacy, social trust, human behaviour and public space, the depth of accountability and transparency, the risks of information sharing, the cost-benefit of technological systems, their effectiveness and the prevalence of errors, citizen-state relations, and the rationality of the public policy process.
Despite the growing interest in the development of surveillance technologies to counter the threat of terrorism, there is a lack of knowledge about the social effects of such systems, or the kind of society that will emerge as they become ubiquitous. The assumption that technological developments will lead to either positive social impacts (e.g. reduced threat of terrorism or crime) or negative social impacts (e.g. ‘big brother’ society) are overly deterministic and ignore socio-technical perspectives which suggest society is a result of interactions between humans, institutions and technologies. Studies of surveillance need to go beyond the technocentric and security focus, so that surveillance systems are not seen just as ‘tools’ that produce simple outcomes, but as constructs that embody social relations and which have profound implications for individuals and the nature of modern society. We need a deep understanding of individual and societal experiences of surveillance, and of different surveillance perspectives, as we develop institutions embedded in the cultural norms of surveillance.
In the new age of widespread technologically mediated surveillance, being surveyed and undertaking surveillance is a normal part of everyday life and understanding the inherently intertwined relations between surveillance technologies and social institutions is an important scientific concern and crucial to our comprehension of today’s society. This Action will address this by increasing awareness and knowledge about surveillance in society. By bringing together surveillance researchers it will consolidate existing knowledge, generate new insights and develop more comprehensive understandings about the contemporary significance of surveillance. The Action will capture the extent of surveillance in society, contemporary surveillance practices, and the reasons for undertaking surveillance. It will gauge citizens’ awareness of, and attitudes towards, modern surveillance practices, assess the implications and consequences of ubiquitous surveillance, and explore the institutional, policy and social settings in which modern surveillance practices are embedded. It will also identify the emergence of different surveillance trajectories, practices and approaches in different COST countries. By doing so, the Action will generate significant new knowledge for the academic community, society more generally, and for governments and public agencies responsible for developing surveillance related policies, legislation and services. Crucially, the Action will provide the impetus to bring together surveillance researchers and national projects and will benefit from the synergies of collaborative activity.