Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Fear, Surveillance, and Consumption

David Lyon

“Bionic Man.” Photograph by Mads Sabtoe (2015). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Surveillance is a key theme for the twenty-first century, particularly after the attacks on America now known as 9/11. This strikes a somber note. Surveillance often smacks of the sinister, a world where suspicions and secrecy rule. In the post-9/11 climate, surveillance also speaks of security, of airport checks and border controls, of risk reduction and the averting of danger. If surveillance was not already a recognized and taken for granted aspect of quotidian life before 9/11, it is now. Social control is one consequence of surveillance, within a broader frame of governance, and it spans social terrains from spying to shopping.

Surveillance is not new; it has a long history in the U.S., as elsewhere. From the early mutual surveillance of settler villages in New England,11xSee David H. Flaherty, Privacy in Colonial New England (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972). where the church courts were the nearest thing to institutional surveillance, to today’s high-tech infrastructural surveillance systems, people are used to being watched. But that experience has gone through a variety of phases. The mid-twentieth century’s cumbersome system of bureaucratic rule in government offices, police departments, and human resources units of large corporations had by the 1970s begun to undergo intensive computerization. This computerization in turn enabled new kinds of data-matching across organizations, which, though limited by law, began to spill over the banks of all previous conventions after 9/11. Computerization also permitted commercial surveillance to flourish in hitherto unknown ways, through insurance companies’ actuarial practices and database marketing. Surveillance now has a curious connection with consumption. Today, after 9/11, the intricate networks linking consumer records with policing and intelligence gathering activities form a panoply of surveillance that is as yet little understood, but that clearly has some profound consequences.

Intertwined with surveillance is another feature of today’s cultural terrain: fear. Without endorsing some general view that a “culture of fear” has become a general condition of contemporary societies,22xSee, for example, Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic, 1999). it is worth remarking that fear, in a multiplicity of manifestations, has risen to a prominent position on the cultural radar. Pedestrians in downtown cores have imbibed the lurid lore of local newspapers and television such that they fear to walk those streets designated as dangerous. In the consumer context, retailers fear the supposed loss of trade that occurs when homeless people or teenagers hang around their stores, and support street video surveillance as a means of discouraging them.

On a societal level, above all in the U.S., fear has become a dominant motif since 9/11. The racialized characteristics of an elusive “enemy within” have produced an unprecedented suspension of civil liberties and flouting of the Constitution that includes the widespread use of new surveillance technologies to create categories of suspicion.33xSee Christian Parenti, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (New York: Basic, 2003); and David Lyon, Surveillance after September 11 (Malden: Blackwell/Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003). Fears have been fanned by the establishment of a Homeland Security Department and by the constant admonitions to ordinary citizens to become the “eyes and ears” of the agencies of policing and law enforcement. Such “eyes and ears” are intended to work in conjunction with the fully-fledged systems of intelligence and surveillance whose budgets have burgeoned since the fateful events of 9/11.


Fear and the Consumption of Surveillance


A host of surveillance devices—more and less legal to operate—is now available on the open market. Anyone who uses the internet is aware of the “spyware” that can be purchased online so that parents can check on their children, spouses on each other, employers on their workers, and so on. This is one means whereby the Big Brother figure has faded to be replaced by a decentralized and depersonalized surveillance of all by all (or at least by all with the will and the resources to engage in surveillance). Even if it is not automated and networked, surveillance is no longer the exclusive preserve of large organizations and departments of state. (It should be noted, however, that the lack of resources does prevent relatively unskilled ordinary users of electronic devices from achieving anything like the surveillance power of large corporations.)

Underlying the quest for consumer surveillance equipment is the desire to be free from fear. Fear is a dominant factor in many domestic and neighborhood concerns in the twenty-first century. One can buy peace of mind, apparently, by purchasing items such as “nanny-cams” with which children in daycare may be watched from a “window” in the corner of the parental workplace computer screen (and this also functions as a form of surveillance over daycare workers, of course). One may even pick up a handy device sold as a “techno-bra” to instantly detect sexual assault and raise an alarm. Much surveillance equipment is sold as a means of allaying fears and quieting the anxieties of those who ignore statistical realities about assault and abuse and read only the lurid headlines.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) may also be considered a means of buying street-level security. CCTV systems are often funded by a combination of private and public bodies. As Stephen Graham argues, in some places they are well on the way to becoming a “5th utility.”44xStephen Graham, “Technology, Place, and Planning: Looking Beyond the Hype,” Planning Theory and Practice 3.2 (2002): 221–44. Like water, electricity, or gas, CCTV systems are increasingly being built into the urban fabric in the UK. While the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), along with a notorious child murder by young boys, may have catalyzed developments in urban, public-space CCTV during the 1980s and 1990s, it seems that protecting spaces of consumption provides the key justification for the ongoing uses of such surveillance today. It is taken for granted and enjoys widespread public support, in ways that parallel street lighting or the provision of lane markers on the roadway.

At the same time the case of CCTV is also interesting for the ways that it is sold. There appears to be a neat amplification effect in which public opinion is claimed to be in favor of CCTV (though the methodological questions surrounding this are manifold), public figures make pronouncements about how CCTV “works” (though the evidence seems thin) that are supplemented by quoted figures from CCTV companies and then reinforced through television crime shows. As Clive Norris says, television and CCTV were “made for each other.”55xClive Norris and Gary Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 67. Television is frequently referred to by respondents as their source of information about CCTV. And there is little public opposition to it. If this is “Big Brother,” then he has certainly been domesticated as a consumer good.

To examine CCTV, however, is merely to look on the surface of the surveillance-and-commodification theme. Beneath the surface a huge industry of personal information processing has arisen that actually lubricates the capitalist economy more significantly than any other item. It has visible manifestations, of course, in phenomena such as loyalty clubs in supermarkets, frequent flyer point systems, warranty forms that ask about other interests and spending habits, telephone bills, and internet cookies. What all these have in common is that they are means of gleaning, amassing, coding, and classifying personal information. The visible tokens of credit cards and barcodes bespeak a hidden world of personal data processing that places behaviors, preferences, and patterns into categories in order to target marketing efforts more and more precisely and efficiently. The more people consume, the more is known about their consumption, and the more this is used as a guide both to what they will likely consume and to where incentives can be introduced to further encourage that consumption.

These practices are known collectively as “database marketing,” a term that sums up neatly what happens. Personal data are sought wherever they may be found and entered into searchable databases to be processed into usable information. The idea is to produce algorithms that will facilitate the process of matching products to potential customers who in one way or another have revealed their preferences and past choices. Indeed, one could argue that this is the process whereby consumers are produced for products. It is not so much that they are somehow programmed to consume in particular ways, but rather that the range of choices is prescribed. Rather like the TV news, which does not so much tells us what to think as what to think about, a shopping agenda rather than a shopping list is created for consumers, and the path is smoothed to the (virtual) door of that particular outlet.

Since the mid-1990s these kinds of practices have been enhanced by internet use, since massive amounts of personal data circulate online as people surf the web and use email. These are captured by numerous increasingly sophisticated means, starting with cookies, the little software devices that attach themselves, barnacle-like, to our personal computers, as we navigate the electronic seas. But these cookies are also unlike barnacles in the sense that they act as communication conduits. Think of them rather as bugs, concealed on window fixtures or in electrical outlets, that are transmitting information back to their headquarters. It is hard not to bring in the spy-movie scenario, because it captures the situation so well. Some call these “ET” devices because, like Spielberg’s extraterrestrial, they “phone home.” Personal data about which sites have been visited or even which goods purchased is thus “known” automatically by marketers, who frequently try to combine these data with ones garnered in the off-line world in order to create fuller profiles of consumers.

Without lapsing into technological determinism, it is worth mentioning that one other relevant technological innovation is likely to become increasingly important over the next few years. If cookies are “computer-bugs,” then Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) makes “body-bugs” a real pervasive possibility. RFID is already making its presence felt in a number of consumer contexts, and it speaks particularly to the matter of mobility. It is likely that RFID will begin to replace the ubiquitous bar code as a means of keeping track of consumer goods so that, at the most mundane level, razor blade or sweatshirt shelves can be restocked. The device, in this case, is a tiny tag that can be attached to almost anything from shelved products in a store to livestock. It sends radio messages that potentially increase efficiency. Such tags have already proved their worth in airport luggage-routing systems and highway toll collections. Major outlets such as Walmart are keen to reap the benefits themselves.66xSteve Ulfelder “Raising an RFID Ruckus” Technewsworld (8 October 2003) www.technewsworld.com/perl/story/31792.html/ But, of course, clothing with tags is worn by consumers as they move around, and goods with tags are taken home, which is why privacy advocates are concerned. No policy currently exists to prevent stores, hackers, or even government departments from utilizing data from these devices.

The rise of database marketing since the 1980s helped to foster the belief that such techniques may be used to compensate for the lack of “personal contact” in buying and selling. Under the banner of “Relationship Marketing,” the practice has grown as a way of “getting to know” your customer. This, of course, has nothing to do with personal knowledge typified by what we know of our friends or colleagues; it is also far from a mutual process. The marketer aims to “know” the customer with almost no reciprocal knowing except of the most carefully edited and scripted kind. The “knowledge” acquired is merely that of inferred preferences from patterns of consumer behavior, or from self-reported declarations of spending habits. A flexible software tool known as “Customer Relationship Marketing” or CRM is a spin-off from this marketing theory that has proliferated in its forms and uses since it was first used in the 1990s.

Whatever the mechanism for extracting and storing personal data, the purpose is to create searchable databases capable of making up or creating customers. By subjecting the data to sophisticated techniques, profiles are produced for use by marketers. To older methods of data-matching have now been added data mining and other kinds of analysis that enable marketers to make increasingly fine-grained files on consumers. The profiles can be sorted and ranked in terms of their relative profitability for the corporation, and differential treatment meted out to consumers as a result. Such practices are becoming more widespread and systematic, leading at worst to the reinforcement of already existing forms of social division and inequality.

Though one might think that this sort of personal data collection would inspire in consumers fears about corporate control, this process of commodifying personal data is not generally seen as unwelcome by many consumers. In a recent Canadian survey, 42% of respondents said they were happy to have their shopping habits monitored in return for a 10% discount on purchases. And 36% of internet users would be prepared to have their surfing monitored for a new computer and free internet access.77xAnnual Report of the Privacy Commissioner (Ottawa, 2000) 30. Corporations often brush off complaints by privacy vigilantes with the remark that customers do not actually care about privacy, the evidence being that only a tiny minority does anything to protect their online transactions and interactions. But, of course, consumers may not do so for many reasons, including the fact that they do not understand what is going on or do not have the technical ability to protect themselves. Beyond this, there is simple economic gain or convenience for which, it seems, some “innocent” data may cheerfully be sacrificed.


Seamless Surveillance after 9/11


Well before September 11, 2001, surveillance was big business, was connected with consumption, and was itself consumed. Since that pivotal date, however, the consumption-surveillance connection has had a new twist. In addition to personal information gleaned from police and immigration records, intelligence sources and other government-related databases, customer data is now viewed as fair game for law enforcement purposes. This is not entirely new, of course, but 9/11 gave the trend a strong boost.

Immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington, grainy images of Mohammed Atta and his associates started to appear on television screens. The images were from CCTV machines at convenience stores, gas stations, fast food outlets, and the like. One also saw telephone and email logs, and traces gathered from online airline ticketing outlets. In other words, those consumer footprints were used in the process of piecing together the story of what happened prior to the attacks. Together they amounted to vital bits of data through which activities could be mapped and timed, re-creating the actual sequences of events and contacts that led up to the fatal consummation of the conspiracy.

This was not an anomalous moment or a quirky blip in the history of surveillance. There is a long-term trend towards “system integration,” which is the dream of some computer scientists and has the support and encouragement of politicians and civil servants with a classic modernist mindset. (It should also be observed that other computer scientists object more soberly that the dream is just that, and some politicians stake their reputations on resisting system integration in its various guises.) What was visible just after 9/11 is the tip of an electronic iceberg, which, beneath the surface, is a complex entity of personal data collection, exchange, combination, manipulation, and production. System integration, thought of as a means of coordination and efficiency-enhancement, invites the use of personal (and other) data, wherever they may be found, for purposes that appear as political priorities.

After 9/11 the now-familiar “War Against Terror” was declared, and this theme has become a political priority wherever American influence is felt. Interestingly (and ironically) enough, several of the most important proposals and initiatives within this “War” involve both the use of consumer data and the deployment of consumer surveillance techniques in the apprehension of “terrorists.” For the latter, law enforcement agencies seized on CRM (Customer Relationship Marketing) as a highly appropriate tool for redeployment as an “anti-terror” device. If customers could be clustered according to type in order to narrow down to and home in on likely targets, the same methods could be extended to do the same for “terror” suspects. For the former, I have in mind the now discontinued “Total Information Awareness” or TIA scheme, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening or CAPPS II program,88xWhether TIA is truly “discontinued” in the sense that it disappears, not to reappear in another similar form, remains to be seen. and the plan to integrate federally the drivers’ license registration system that to date has always been state-administered.

The use of consumer data in the “War Against Terror” was manifest in three proposals. The first was a Pentagon plan to link a number of databases, including some consumer records, to create a mega-network of personal data useful in the apprehension of suspects. The second, now well under way, was seen as a means of increasing security at the vulnerable borderless-borders of airports. It combines data required by law with other marketing sources, adding to the already existing level of air traveler surveillance through ticketing and frequent flyer records. The third, if indeed it is implemented as planned, will enable law enforcement agencies to create a de facto national electronic identification for American citizens, even those who do not drive motor vehicles. Once again, however, the personal information available within the system will include customer records.

In these obvious ways, then, 9/11 reinforced existing trends, connecting personal databases that previously had little or no connection, including those whose initial purpose (whether dubious or not in itself ) was to process customer data. There is an obvious drive for system integration as a means of taking advantage of every conceivable source of personal data. And one may also discern at work here a playing on public fears that amplifies what was already present in the depiction of downtown cores as sites of danger.

Technological solutions are also proffered for social and political problems. The use of some technologies in obtaining security may not in itself be questionable, but the fact is that such solutions have a very high profile and involve heavy spending on the part of the relevant authorities. They also appear to overshadow other kinds of initiatives of more low-tech and labor intensive kinds. But low-tech and labor-intensive methods are already discounted in “relationship marketing,” so it should hardly be surprising that these features are perpetuated in the “War Against Terror.”


Surveillance as Social Defense: Consumption and Control


What may be concluded from this brief survey of some links between fear, surveillance, and consumption? Are there more theoretical ways of grasping what is happening? Two concepts may help: one is defense and the other is governance. The word defense has increasingly ambiguous connotations. It may be used in the military and law-enforcement sense of defending persons or property from attacks. But it may also bespeak a situation in which political orders or social privilege may be defended from perceived attack. As for governance, this concept is very useful in this context for discussing the ways in which social order is maintained not merely by some legitimately constituted powers, but by forms of power that seep throughout the social system, many of which have no obvious connection with power in the conventional sense. Consumer surveillance may be thought of in this context.

As Nikolas Rose argues, today our citizenship is not realized primarily in relation to the state or a uniform public sphere but through active engagement with diverse and dispersed private and corporate practices, in which shopping and working loom large.99xNikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 246. We have constantly to repeat credentials and identifiers in order to link ourselves into the “circuits of civility.” These touch each life decision with all manner of inducements and sanctions that ensure control over conduct. They are fluid and networked but at certain points highly exclusionary. Customer Relationship Marketing fits this description nicely, and elucidates the working of one of the key strands of contemporary governance.

The governance theme may also be pursued by considering the forms of individualization that are visibly present in today’s consumer-oriented societies. Commodification fits as neatly with individualism as it does with governance. In contemporary societies risk is increasingly individualized (rather than shared), and this encourages a situation of dispersed governance, working through so-called market mechanisms. Pleasures may be individualized in societies that genuflect towards consumer choice, but so are perceived risks. Hence the nanny-cam and the techno-bra. But, of course, such devices can only be afforded by certain social groups. They will also be managed by the private sector and by corporations. Those who fall through the cracks will be caught in systems still run (though possibly contracted-out) by the state. The new divisions are between high-risk and low-risk travelers, workers, and consumers.

If new surveillance techniques developed in any of these spheres are thought to have some residual negative consequences, then individualized solutions are also available, on the shelf labeled “privacy.” This idea is commonly thought of as the protection of personal space from violations and intrusions, and is perversely perpetuated in a world whose surveillance practices go far beyond mere personal violations and intrusions11010xThis is not an argument against privacy either as a limited social good or as an effective mobilizing slogan against the proliferation of surveillance. I have defended it on both counts in several places including in my book The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Moreover in many cases privacy offers little more than self-protection for those who can afford to follow-up suspected instances of the abuse or misuse of personal information, and who know how to use the law. Whatever the merits of the discourse of “privacy”—and there are some—it is woefully and chronically inadequate for dealing with the challenges of contemporary surveillance.

In a world of rampant commodification, none of this is surprising. The coin of so-called self-making through consumer choices has an obverse side, that of consumer categorization and sorting. The much-loved postmodern theme that shows how people construct their “selves” through a conscious process of selecting personae in their spending habits may have some merit. But taken on its own, it paints only a very partial picture of the social realities of contemporary consumer culture in which classification from outside is as significant if not more so than the process of self-definition from within.1111xRichard Jenkins, “Categorization: Identity, Social Process, and Epistemology,” Current Sociology 48.3 (2000): 7–25. The power to classify and categorize has always carried huge power.1212xPierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). How much more so when the process is automated, generalized, and systematic, and when the categories are available across a range of social and political agencies and organizations?

The 9/11 theme is important here merely as a reminder of the more egregious aspects of categorizing, known popularly as “racial profiling,” and because of the connections between the War Against Terror and consumer society. Like the War on Drugs that preceded it, the War Against Terror also acts as a handy decoy to distract public attention from the social realities of a rapidly accelerating gap between rich and poor in the U.S. (and other countries such as the U.K.).1313xDavid Garland argues that these two are closely connected within what he calls “the culture of control” in his book The Culture of Control (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001). It is not only victims of slipshod “justice” after 9/11 who should be considered, but the poorest and the most vulnerable at both local and global levels. In the U.S. one might think of welfare mothers in Appalachia, whose courageous activities under the surveillance of those who are appointed as “overseers of the poor” have been so well documented by John Gilliom.1414x John Gilliom, Overseers of the Poor (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).

The kinds of governance emerging today rely on a combination of technical and social fixes, but it should also be observed that these methods have strict limitations. Not only do some new surveillance technologies—particularly those established to deal with “security threats”—not work effectively, but their underlying logic is also defective. They depend on an amoral instrumentalism that is surely bound to fail in the long run. Social defense technologies merely try to limit opportunities for criminal behavior or to maximize opportunities for targeted consumer spending. The individualizing tendencies of societies characterized by consumerism-out-of-control are blindingly visible here, but they may also tend to obscure the fact that the solidarities of civil society are simultaneously being eroded by the same means. Exploring such absences is another crucial task for the social sciences.

Surveillance today is offered as a commodity that will provide protection and security. It is something to be bought; it has a price. It is also to be consumed; we desire more and more (not necessarily because it works but because it fits the currently reigning ideology). Yet as it works right now, it produces more technology-reliance and dependence on individual solutions for problems that might more properly be thought of as public ones. Although on the surface surveillance augmentation reduces freedom in a curious paradox of control, freedom is not the primary casualty. Collateral damage is caused above all to love and to trust. The culture of control that is fostered by the commodification of surveillance currently mitigates against an ethics of care. Its automation in algorithmic systems tends to shift it further and further from the personal and the moral. Surveillance is articulated with systems of exclusion that may act as domination—as in the case of racial profiling—or as abandonment, in which the capacity to “walk by on the other side” is computer-assisted.1515xSee Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

All this also takes place, as I have argued, within cultural contexts where fears are significant factors. Fear is many-faceted; it ebbs and flows as histories and biographies intersect, here fomented by media amplification, there mitigated by communal involvement, commitments, and clear-sightedness. Our societies are, as Frank Furedi says, fearful because “...the evaluation of everything from the perspective of safety is a defining characteristic.”1616x Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation (London: Cassel, 1997) 4. We perceive the world as dangerous, do not trust others, and are skeptical about whether any intervention might work. Yet the kinds of fear discussed here are specific, to environments (such as airports, streets) and particular classes of persons (prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless people, “terrorists,” and so on). While there may be some general “culture of fear” (perhaps particularly in the U.S.), it is important to specify what sorts of fear are significant in what places for which persons and at what times.1717xSee Andrew Tudor’s helpful article, “A (Macro) Sociology of Fear?” The Sociological Review 51.2 (2002): 238–56. How these are connected with surveillance and with commodification could then be examined in a case-by-case fashion.

Are there some practical ways of confronting this? Yes. Though this would be the topic of another article, it should be noted that alternatives exist, including ones that do not simply eschew all technologies, mobilities, or forms of consumption. At a local level, accountability among system operators, participation in systems design, the will to maintain vigilance in protecting personal details through legal means (such as privacy law), the courage and willingness to ask not which is the best system but whether we need a “system” at all—all these and more are ways of addressing contemporary surveillance outside the present box. These are appeals to the powerful to care and protect rather than invitations to victims to protect themselves (with law, cash, and so on).1818xAt the very broadest level, it should always be remembered, too, that fear and love are mutually repelling poles.

At a global level, growing awareness is apparent of the dangers of the present surveillance-commodification spiral, along with its fateful connections with fear. It comes, on the one hand, from a curious coalition of loosely networked persons concerned with civil liberties and human rights, especially after 9/11, and, on the other hand, from consumer groups who have come to realize the massive power of customer information for good or ill. In the twenty-first century we may well see the further rise of cross-national movements concerned with both surveillance and (over-)consumption, which in turn will help shift the agenda away from individualized notions of privacy and towards more social analyses and solutions. But given the deep-seated nature of commodified surveillance in contemporary cultures of control, such alternatives may still have a hard time getting a hearing at either level.