Surveillance: the road to odium
You wait until your teenager is making one of those interminable excursions to monopolize the shower room. Taking advantage of the opportunity, you take a good long peek at the device they have left on their bed. Smart but carelessly unsecured, it yields the secrets of their contacts and conversations.
Though other parents also act like this all the time, yours has been an instance of individual behaviour. You have committed a particular act of surveillance.
A more collective definition
But there have always been more collective instances of surveillance. For example, when they compiled the Doomsday Book the triumphant Normans prised out of a sullen, conquered people a great number of hitherto guarded secrets. In the last couple of centuries especially, the word surveillance has acquired a collective connotation as well as an individual one, and, in the heated debates of our day, the collective definition is beginning to dominate, with surveillance now meaning spying and data collection on a mass scale.
Along with George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are those who have treated this new form of surveillance as a consequence of the overweening powers of the modern state. In doing so, they gloss over the just-as-significant private dimensions of mass spying.
In nineteenth-century America, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency branded itself ‘The Eye That Never Sleeps’ and had a network of secret agents, called ‘operatives’, that far exceeded anything the federal government could offer.
The Pinkertons’ main target and source of income was the labour movement. Private detectives from the Pinkerton agency and its many rivals infiltrated unions in order to supply their clients, the employers, with information. Although some of the secret operatives double-crossed their clients in order to prolong their contracts, businessmen on the whole effectively used that information to fire employees, compile blacklists, and crush union militancy. Taylorism had the same goal. Frederick Taylor was the father of ‘scientific management’, or the use of the stopwatch to time and regulate a worker’s every action on the production line. This kind of surveillance provoked resentment from employees who saw that Taylorism’s goal was the ‘speed-up’, and did not want to be timed on their comfort breaks.
Pinkertonism and Taylorism crossed the Atlantic, and are still with us today. There is widespread recognition of their impact, and, whatever Orwell thought, they are as significant an example of modern surveillance as the practices of, say, the FBI or MI5.
Dirty words and quandaries
Its moral and emotional impact must surely be part of a word’s definition. Consider not just the examples above, but also the novelists. From Jonathan Swift to Liam O’Flaherty via James Fenimore Cooper, ‘spies’ and ‘informers’ have been opprobrious in name, and have been presumed to be disgusting in action. The rarely used term ‘surveillant’ has yet to reach that pitch of obloquy, but the practice of surveillance is beginning to. For example, Shami Chakrabarti in her days as director of Liberty denounced the UK government’s surveillance practices as outrageous.
This attitudinal progression is not confined to politics; the term ‘surveillance’ is also a dirty word in the James Bond movie Spectre. Beyond the world of silver screen spies, Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, has denied that his former agency conducted surveillance. He argued that its computers’ access to bulk data was not the same as human eyes falling on the collected evidence (much can be learned from knowledge about who messaged whom and from where and when, as distinct from the actual text of the message). The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee agreed with Omand. The point here is not the rights and wrongs of their claims, but the agreement across the spectrum that the word ‘surveillance’ has become increasingly toxic.
Yet, just as we love a good spy story even as we despise actual spies, so we remain ambivalent about surveillance. The ‘spy in the cab’ is offensive to commercial drivers, but many of us are pleased that there is a device that deters a trucker from driving too long without a rest and from exceeding the safe speed limit for his/her vehicle.
And here is another, very human, illustration of how we can’t make up our minds on the general principle. A group of employees complained bitterly that, as they worked in front of their monitors, their employer was observing them through those computers’ cameras (the CIA also resorts to this practice, and Orwell predicted it). But the same group used their work monitors to view, via remote CCTV, carers’ behaviour at the establishments where they had left their children before leaving for their place of employment.
Both private and state practices have reinforced the impression that ‘surveillance’ is about mass espionage, and they have strengthened the perception that ‘surveillance’, never an entirely innocent noun, is now a word that stimulates suspicion. Just ask the teenager.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ new book, We Know All About You, tells the story of surveillance in Britain and the USA, from the American detective agencies of the late nineteenth century to the world of wikileaks and Edward Snowden in the twenty-first, in full for the first time.