Surveillance Essay

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Surveillance technologies and practices have become increasingly developed and diffuse. In a generic sense, surveillance refers to the process of observing behavior. In contemporary usage, surveillance refers to the use of electronic devices to expand the reach and depth of traditional sensory observation and knowledge. For example, a video camera may serve as the extension of the eye, and a listening device may serve as an extension of the ear. Similarly, data-mining methods may deepen the boundaries of what is knowable, allowing information to be detected well beyond what is normally accessible. Characteristics of emergent surveillance technologies contributing to their increased use are their often unobtrusive and cost-effective nature.

The dominant academic metaphor for understanding surveillance in contemporary society is known as the “panopticon,” derived from 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) architectural design for a prison that allowed for continual supervision of inmates. Given the design of the panopticon, prisoners were aware that they might be observed at any time, causing them to control their own behavior. This self-control stemmed from the perception that one might be under observation, which was reinforced by the periodic supervision of prisoners by hidden guards. Although Bentham designed the panopticon as a prison house, he also suggested its use in orphanages and poor houses. While contemporary persons do not literally live in a panopticon, scholars of surveillance argue that they nonetheless live and behave as if they are potentially under observation in an electronic web of surveillance technologies. In this sense, many scholars argue that the contemporary surveillance society is analogous to a broad-reaching panopticon of social control.

Varieties of Surveillance

In the past, surveillance concentrated on individuals determined to be suspicious. Increasingly, scholars argue that a “new surveillance” is developing, one that focuses on categories of suspicious persons. Under the new surveillance, individuals may be disproportionately subjected to observation based on group membership. For example, all members of groups with higher rates of criminal offense, such as urban minority males in the United States, or who are perceived as possible perpetrators of serious offenses, such as Arab Muslims, may disproportionately fall under police surveillance. In a criminal justice context, this process may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which groups who are more heavily surveilled will in fact be determined to have a higher rate of offense. Such an outcome may rest more in the detection of criminal behavior than in true underlying differences in rates of offense.

Similarly, under the new logic of surveillance, private organizations such as corporations may collect information about members of market segments in the advancement of profitability. This means that those members of less desirable market segments, such as the poor, will not be proportionally targeted for marketing surveillance. Ironically, while the poor are more likely to be the subject of surveillance by the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be ignored by corporate surveillance. Both tendencies may lead to the further disempowerment of the poor in relationship to public and private institutions.

Problems Associated with Surveillance

Surveillance occupies an interesting position in relation to social problems in general, in that it is often interpreted as both a problem in itself and a solution to numerous other problems. Although surveillance practices may relate to numerous social arenas, they are particularly relevant for legal and criminal justice dimensions. Technologies of surveillance are developing rapidly, and the future impact on legal landscapes is yet to be determined. In common law systems such as the United States and Canada, the development of legal precedent to deal with emergent problems tends to be case driven. Therefore, the development of legal positions related to emergent technologies of surveillance is likely to lag behind the emergent technologies themselves. There is likely to be a continued tendency for legal stances related to surveillance practices to develop only when they arise as legal problems for the courts. Given the widespread and increasing use of surveillance, this presents a future crisis for the judicial system. In particular, the relationship of surveillance practices to rights of personal privacy and personal information may increasingly arise as a legal conundrum.

Similarly, the increased use of surveillance may cause problems for the criminal justice system. Although there may exist some optimism about the use of surveillance technologies to detect and deter criminal behaviors, the increased ability to detect criminal behaviors in suspect groups may lead to higher rates of arrest of group members. In turn, this may lead to a higher rate of conviction and incarceration, which may put a strain on the criminal justice system’s ability to process and house offenders. While many scholars already point out a racial bias present in the criminal justice system, the increased use of surveillance technologies to monitor suspect groups may ultimately exacerbate this bias, with suspect groups more heavily policed. In practice, the criminal justice system has yet to deal with the practical and juridical complications caused by the new surveillance in its violation of the presumption of innocence. That is, developments in surveillance may complicate the right of an accused to enjoy the legal position of innocence until proven guilty in court. A related issue is that the extensive use of surveillance practices by criminal justice agencies may complicate long-standing debates related to Fourth Amendment issues of search and seizure. While the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from search without probable cause of suspicion, the criminal justice system has yet to resolve the constitutionality of putting all individuals within a subpopulation under surveillance.


  1. Staples, William G. 2000. Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Surveillance and Society. (

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