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Computers, Surveillance, And Privacy

Editor: David Lyon, Elia Zureik
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996
Review Published: April 1999

 REVIEW 1: Kent A. Ono

After finishing Computers, Surveillance, and Privacy, a sympathetic reader of the book (one who is aware of the current personal computer market) might reason that as the price of personal computers continues to go down, correspondingly, the price of personal privacy, and hence control over the circulation of personal information, goes up.

The editors of the collection, David Lyon (author of The Information Society: Issues and Illusions [1988], The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society [1994],] and Postmodernity [1994]) and Elia Zureik (coeditor of The Social Context of the New Information and Communication Technologies: A Bibliography [1987]), have gathered together twelve essays, including a cowritten one of their own, that address the increasing salience of computers and vulnerability of those who use them. According to the introduction, each of the book's chapters was initially presented as a research paper at a workshop at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, in May 1993.

The book as a whole offers a cautionary message: employers, corporations, and governments can obtain personal information about people and the legal right to use it. While some of the book's essays go to pains to note the "positive" uses to which personal information accessed via computers can be put (notable among them, chapters by James Rule and Calvin Gotlieb), most paint a picture of computer users unwittingly providing "information athletes" (265) with personal information they would otherwise not disclose, were they to know what the book aptly demonstrates entrepreneurs of information actually do with the information.

If there is one essay that seems to capture the central theme of the book, it is Oscar Gandy's essay on what he calls the "panoptic sort," in which he provides a brief sketch of ideas he develops in more detail in his book, The Panoptic Sort (1993). Gandy is cited as a source more often in the book than any of the other authors in the book, with James Rule coming in a distant second. (Interestingly, the pages of Gandy's chapter, pp. 132-155, are at the center of the 285 page book.)Gandy's basic premise is that personal information is a commodity that can be identified, classified, and assessed via telecommunication and computer technology so as to aid companies in finding target audiences to whom they can advertise their products. This system is "panoptic," a term Gandy borrows from Foucault; it relies on a power differential and is part of a surveillance and intelligence gathering process that draws on the inadvertent provision of information by a subject and the use and marketing of such information, without consent, by those seeking economicprofit. Hence, over time, individual rights to privacy are eroded through the intensification of capital-driven corporate strategies.

Like Gandy, most of the authors in the book tend to develop a theoretical concept to discuss the central issues of the book. Abbe Mowshowitz develops the concept of "affinity groups" -- "collections of individuals with limited common objectives" (79) -- to explain how the exchange of information is a means for consolidating groups and group identity, rendering the members of the group more vulnerable to social control. Mowshowitz sketches the similarity of computers to other media, based on comparisons of cost, medium, and function. The particularity of computers is, Mowshowitz suggests, the consolidation of various functional uses of other technologies and the enhancement of their efficiency so as to stimulate capital exchange and hence increase the likelihood of social control. Mowshowitz argues that the creation of consumer profiles by marketers appeals to the ideology of individualism and thereby influences shifts in affinity groups and identity construction.

Rob Kling and Jonathan Allen develop the concept of "information entrepreneurialism" which they define as "when information capitalism characterizes a major part of the system of economic exchange" (106). Information entrepreneurialism, they argue, intensifies data gathering techniques that are highly analytic in nature and tend to privilege management of resources as well as encourage attitudes that privilege the search for personal information. The move toward information entrepreneurialism suggests a related move away from privacy as a social good and toward greater anonymity of subjects within a highly depersonalized capital terrain.

Colin Bennett develops the concept of "dataveillance" and demonstrates how surveillance in the form of a "massive collection and storage of vast quantities of personal data" (237) serves to coordinate tasks across various governmental and social agencies that ordinarily are unrelated. Bennett highlights social and political costs versus the loss of personal privacy and argues for an international comparative approach.

In a pragmatic and overtly politicized vein, Simon Davies develops a measuring device to determine various levels of surveillance in different contexts. Because "surveillance is so seductive and its acceptance so widespread" (261), Davies encourages the measurement of surveillance on behalf of privacy advocates, experts, and policy makers. While not as overtly politicized as Davies, Judith Perrolle also takes a pragmatic approach in arguing that since at least informal intrusions into everyday life are unavoidable, it makes sense to develop a concept of privacy that is not absolute. In an attempt to counter the increasing intrusion of technology, while simultaneously recognizing the malleability of privacy, Perrolle argues for informal communication and social relations as a social good in order to enhance the workplace climate. It is not so much surveillance by employers but technology and its reification that leads to diminished trust and the increasingly uncaring atmosphere in the workplace.

Along with Lyon and Zureik's own chapter, which argues against technological determinism and privacy as an end good, these seven chapters primarily focus on surveillance technology and the threat it may pose to privacy, very often in the form of social control. Each chapter develops a concept, theory, or in Davies's case a measuring instrument, for addressing the invasiveness of surveillance technologies. Together, these chapters highlight the contemporary scene in which technologies and subjects interact, and in which people may become conditioned or socialized to accept, or at least seemingly to become more comfortable with, higher levels of social surveillance and control.

Beyond the common concern over the increasingly public nature of personal information, there is not a unifying perspective among all of the chapters of this book. Priscilla M. Regan's essay, which follows the editors' chapter, argues for privacy as a social good in the process of studying genetic surveillance of workers in corporations. Further, Gary Marx conducts a textual analysis of popular cultural materials depicting surveillance themes in his chapter.

As if to challenge the book itself for what he sees as an underlying assumption of it, James Rule's chapter argues strongly that there is "no a priori grounds to conclude that the control of modern, highly centralized institutions is more relentless, more severe, or more total in its effects on the individual than large-scale, modern forms of control" (69).

Calvin Gotlieb's chapter, which argues against appeals to privacy, seems to build on Rule's by arguing that surveillance and control are not total. Gotlieb says that in Canada and the U.S. people no longer value privacy as a social good, because they realize that there is a trade-off between divulging private information -- e.g., SIN and SSN numbers -- and obtaining various benefits that accrue from providing such information. His commonsense approach to how people actually conceive of reality within the lived experience of their daily lives is an impulse lacking in most essays in the book.

Mark Poster's essay also clearly deviates from the overall emphasis of the majority of the book's essays. Articulating a self-conscious poststructuralist project, Poster characterizes databases as discourse. His perspective, thus, contrasts with many others in the book who see databases as instruments of capitalist domination and others who view databases as threats to personal privacy. Poster focuses on key dimensions of the discursivity of computer databases, namely that: 1) language mediates subjectivity, 2) language has a hailing effect, and 3) interpellation is always partial and incomplete, hence leaving open possibilities for resistance. Poster's essay accounts for the larger, cultural effect databases pose, an effect that is "governmental" in nature -- hence fostering in subjects a particular organizational view of society. As Poster puts it, "the discourse of the database is a cultural force that operates in a mechanism of subject constitution that refutes the hegemonic principle of the subject as centered, rational, and autonomous" (185).

While I cannot overemphasize the importance of the overall focus of the book on the encroachment of public surveillance technologies, and do not have space to communicate fully all that I learned in the process of reading this book, I do want to suggest that a book titled Computers, Surveillance, and Privacy could be much more broad in scope than the current volume. I was personally surprised by the overall narrow approach the book takes to its subject matter. More deviance like that of the five essays discussed above, all of which stray from the dominant paths in the book, is warranted.

Regan's discussion of genetic surveillance, Marx's study of popular culture texts, Gotlieb's focus on the social construction of reality, and Poster's poststructural approach, for me, point to the diverse potential for studies of computers, surveillance, and privacy, and they encourage me to think of more. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that this review is being written nearly six years after the conference out of which this book evolved, but I would argue that there is much, much more that is relevant to the topic.

For example, in line with the book's own stated interest in studying "a world quite different from that of the mid-century" (vii), I would be interested in hearing about the political ramifications, complex cultural effects, and technical significance of the use of chat rooms, the increased landscape on the Web for pornography, the role of military intelligence and the Web, an actual case study of the use of surveillance by corporations on employees, the many breaches of so-called "national security" by computer hacks, the folklore surrounding computer viruses, the role of virtual reality in the future, the use of computers and related technologies to track criminals, The Human Genome Project (which fuses computer technology with genetic surveillance), the increasing viability of videophones, computer-assisted police surveillance, the use of computer simulators for military and space research purposes, and the interface between video cameras and computers.

In addition to these possible research subjects with regard to the book's overall focus (and there are obviously countless more that cannot be listed in the space here), a theoretical chapter about subjects using surveillance technologies against governments versus the other way around might be a useful way to illustrate Lyon and Zureik's point at the outset of the book that technology is not simply a unidirectional, determinate force, but a capacity put to various uses and toward myriad ends.

Another focus might be the theoretical role "privacy" has played in the history of Western civilization. For instance, I can envision a chapter discussing the way appeals to "privacy" and "private property" were used to help take land and cultural resources away from Native Americans. Thus, again supporting one of Lyon and Zureik's points, such an essay might demonstrate how discussions of surveillance and technology should not be constructed around "privacy," which, given a poststructural approach to the subject, would simply reconstitute particular colonial discourses and power relations.

Further, like Bennett's focus, a more international comparative approach to the study of surveillance systems across national contexts (indeed, transnational contexts) would be useful. Finally, a comparative model not primarily focused on Europe, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. would be helpful as well. For instance, what is the role of computer surveillance technologies in so-called "Third World" regions?

One can always point to what is not in a volume. But since I think what is in the volume is a nice springboard for continuing conversations, I have found it useful to point to matters not directly addressed in the book. Hopefully, further conversations will take place; certainly, Computers, Surveillance, and Privacy is a touchstone that could help begin such future dialogues.

Kent A. Ono:
Kent A. Ono is Associate Professor in the American Studies Program and in the Asian American Studies Program at UC Davis. The primary emphasis of his research is on critical and theoretical analysis of media -- print, film, and television -- specifically focusing on representations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. He has contributed articles to various journals and anthologies. He is co-editor of Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek (Westview, 1996) and is currently completing a co-authored book, Shifting Borders: Rhetoric, Immigration, and California's "Proposition 187".  <kaono@ucdavis.edu>

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