Surveillance Society Essay Sample

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‘The police are key players in the emergence of the so-called “surveillance society”. Evaluate this statement.What exactly is a ‘surveillance society’? The term is often used by the popular media to refer to the older more totalitarian notions of the ‘security state’ or Orwellian references to ‘Big Brother’ (Wood, 2009: 180). Surveillance can be defined as being a form of social control in which individuals are being monitored directly through several authorities e.g. The Government and the Police, with the idea that surveillance protects us in society by using a ‘Big Brother’ ideology which is developed through social norms directing individuals cognition and behaviour.At the end of 2006, the UK was described by the Surveillance Studies Network as being ‘the most surveilled country’ among the industrialized Western states with around 4.2 million CCTV surveillance cameras operating around Britain (McCahill; 2002), and is warned that we may be ‘sleepwalking into a surveillance society’. (Richard Thomas; 2006)Cameras may not be a cause for concern when it comes to individual privacy, fairness, or accuracy; the real issue is government power.

Cameras can be used as a tool for good to enforce good laws or for ill to enforce bad laws. With this idea cameras can be used like other policing tools, such as weapons police officers carry, the ability of police departments throughout the nation to gather and share data. We can accept this risk due to fact the tools are valuable and because they’ve set up control systems that can help diminish the risk.In this essay I shall under-go the benefits that surveillance offers and also the issues to understand if our privacy is being breached or does it really intend on helping us as a society.The social theory of surveillance can be traced back to the utilitarian work of Jeremy Bentham (1791) and his vision of rational social control. He invented the concept ‘Panoptican’ a prison design that allowed for uninterrupted inspection, observation and surveillance of prisoners (Drake; et al 2010). The fundamental principle of Panopticon order is the general and constant surveillance of inmates, workers. But Bentham believed this approach could be successfully adopted in any environment which involved some level of supervision. (Roger Hopkins Burke; 2009)

The factor to the effectiveness of the system is an uncertainty, the design assures people watched cannot see their observers. Therefore leads to that people have no area of privacy, even if no-one is watching, they do not know it.The psychological aim of such a system was that the subjects of surveillance would consider that their only logical choice was to deviate. Hence each individual would become their own overseer. The external illusion of an all-seeing eye would become an inner reality of self-policing. (Bentham; 1789)Bentham illustrates that the principles of the Panopticon could be adapted within any sphere requiring some level of regulation, we can find these principles in modern day forms of surveillance, such as closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Despite technologically far superior to surveillance in Bentham’s Era, these prime factors are unaltered and remains prevalent today, to deter people from offending through the constant threat of surveillance and the consequences of being caught on camera.(Roger Hopkins Burke; 2008)

Later theorists such as Michael Foucault followed the concept of Bentham’s panopiticon as an ‘ideal’ or ‘architectural figure’ of power in modern society, Foucault adopts this as a symbol of his entire argument. The theory of discipline where individuals are watched and analysed is sectioned in a building as this makes these operations simple to execute, Foucault criticises that greater sophisticated societies offer wider opportunities for control and observation. Suggesting the reference to liberty and rights, assuming that modern society is supported on the notion that all citizens are free and entitled to make definite demands on society. (Foucault; 1995)In Foucaults view, knowledge and power comes from observing others, marking the transition of disciplinary power, suggesting that every movement are supervised and all events recorded, resulting the acceptance of surveillance of regulations. Those actions of the observer are based upon this by monitoring and analysing the behaviour he sees to exhibited; therefore the more one observes the more powerful one becomes. In Foucault words he states that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process” (Foucault; 1977).

In today’s society, surveillance is a key concept to counter crime and plays a huge role in protecting the public and claimed a ‘duty of government’ to do so. Surveillance is an on going deterrence in modern day society, such as CCTV’s, ANPR, internet and mobile banking.One of the most important questions raised by the spread of closed circuit television in Britain is whether public area surveillance has brought about any significant changes in the way in which police officers behave and exercise their powers.In reports discussing surveillance they suggest it’s a key role for policing as Information on the precise extent of CCTV and ANPR are used nationally, is not centrally available, although it is common ground that CCTV and/or ANPR equipment is in use across the country in a wide range of situations including: High Streets, shopping centres and Public spaces, security Firms, Motorways and the Road network and Airports and Border Crossings. (Home Office; 2011)Surveillance such as Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) is highly employed in vast key installations such as government institutions, airport, schools and hospitals e.g. to heighten security.

CCTV provides a 24/7 security service without too much human resource. For example, schools can use CCTV to track intruders and protect their students from risks.In discussions about the advantages of surveillance, Hazel Harding, Chair of the Local Government Association Safer Communities Board illustrates that “CCTV is very popular with law-abiding members of the public who see it as a preventative and feel much safer CCTV is something that councils are facing demands for day after day from members of the public who think it would actually make them safe and they would feel safer because of it.” (Home Office; 2003)Now although this may be an act of privacy breaching we need to understand the factors without living with surveillance also, it would create unsafe areas and vast more crimes committed and much of these crimes will be difficult to detect as surveillance could provide as a third eye.CCTV is a must have for police and society in the modern day and age, as technology is uprising we as a society need to be protected by allowing police to use tools such as surveillance to detect issues and prevent them before they occur.

From these reports we can understand that policing will be for promoting surveillance as it is a fundamental tool to deter crimes and be able to keep an eye on any unusual behaviour yet BBC reported that only 3% of CCTV cameras in London actually are functioning correcting and operating according by Detective Chief Inspector Mick Nevile (BBC, 6th May 2008). elaborating that “the system was an “utter fiasco” – with 3% of Londons street robberies being solved using surveillance”.This can suggest that police are not always ‘second-guessing’ themselves when relying on surveillance as a only option, they still have to use other specific ways to detect crimes, and CCTV’s which are not working can be used as a deterrence to prevent crimes committed with the idea that you think you are being watched at all times, when quite frankly from the report this is not always the case.The polices duty is to be responsible for keeping order and peace within society usually relies on CCTV as a role of watching public areas intimately. This can enable the police to seek any disruptions which cause issues to public policy and also to coordinate police responses.

For example if an individual has disobeyed the law and been ordered under exclusion from specific areas, the CCTV can be used as a means of strength by enforcing such exclusionary orders.Therefore, one can categorically state this is a form of surveillance as it is used to target individuals under check as they go about their daily routine with thousands of surveillances not only on the streets but as well as in commercial areas and public transports etc. Due to this it can arise issues relating to privacy and data protection in the sense that just as the Data protection Act 1998 protects images it also protects the individuals.(Data Protection Act; 1998)From this we can establish that privacy could be threatened with the growing rate of surveillance. As such methods used to keep an eye on peoples privacy since its an key essential element to setting in action of individual freedom, which can be lead to an executive or legislative restraint. (Rowland D et al; 2005)Privacy is one of our civil liberties and has been a fundamental right of individuals as stated under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and further incorporated into the United Kingdom Human Rights Act 1998 illustrating that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”(Human Rights Act; 1998)

Although in instances such as 7/7, a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) into the July 7, 2005, bombings in London confirms the uncomfortable truth that even the most stringent surveillance work by the security services cannot make us secure. (Telegraph; 2009)And it is evident that in the case of the 7/7 plot, the surveillance work was more hit-and-miss than stringent. While the ISC says it cannot criticise MI5 or the police for failing to track the 7/7 bombers even though the plot’s ringleader was known to them. From this how should privacy regulators respond to the juridical exemptions that claimed for matters for national security with out breaching the notion of a surveillance society and one more step towards a police state in the United Kingdom. (Ibid)Globalization has transformed many aspects of political, economic and civil life worldwide, as crime and criminals cross national borders, police will be facing new situations in promoting public safety, investigating crimes and preventing offenders. (Grabosky and Smith, 1998) In such cases, crime scenes have changed from stationary locations to ephemeral digital sites (Taylor et al 2006). Criminals have increasingly adept in technology to get around transnational illegal acts such as e.g. terrorism, drug/human trafficking and organised crime. (Grabosky and Smith, 1998).

Detecting threats, posed by global terrorists and criminals have provided the drive for many of the legal changes that have contributed to the enchanced surveillance powers of the police in the recent years. (Whitaker, 2003; Bloss, 2005).Although the use of surveillance clearly has its advantages in terms of fighting crime, its overuse can prove counter-productive and can ultimately be viewed as a challenge to Britain’s liberal democratic status, to conclude the unwilling notion of the police to use force when CCTV surveillance is in action must be considered. To Conclude, while CCTV is a desirable tool as a means of police monitoring activity, this must be weighed against the risk of officers in a position of second-guessing themselves. CCTV surveillance has come to resemble the notion of Benthams Panopticon, yet has been a tendency for criminologists and sociologists to see surveillance as a term of social control. It is essential to understand that for Bentham, one of the key factors to his panoptic prison was that it exposed prison guards as well as prisoners to outside scrutiny.

Whether intended or not, the spread of CCTV may also have sparked a transformation in the very nature of police work, and the move towards a surveillance society in which ordinary police officers, like Bentham’s prison guards, are no longer able to avoid the public gaze. Therefore living in a supposed ‘surveillance society’ can benefit and protect us, despite our privacy being breached but if we’ve done nothing wrong we should have nothing to hide.


An introduction to criminological theory; third edition, Roger Hopkins Burke, Williampublishing, Willan; 3 edition (1 May 2009) Bentham, J. 1789; An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation BBC, Britain is ‘surveillance society’, Richard Thomas 2006 used on 08/01/2012 accessed at:, 6th May 2008, CCTV Boom ‘failing to cut crime’, Retrieved May 6th 2008 from BBC, 6th May 2008, CCTV Boom ‘failing to cut crime’, Retrieved May 6th 2008 from Criminal Justice: Local and Global edited by Deborah Drake, John Muncie, Louise Westmarland Willan (1 Oct 2009) Consultation on code of practice relating to surveillance cameras; Home Office 2011Grabosky, P. and R. Smith (1998). Crime in the Digital Age: Controlling Telecommunications and Cyberspace Illegalities, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Home Office, Access to Communications Data-Respecting Privacy and Protecting the Public from Crime, March 2003. Foucault, Michael. 1977. Discipline and Punishment. London: Tavistock. Michael Foucault Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison; Vintage; 2nd Edition edition (April 25, 1995) Rowland D. and Macdonald E.: Information Technology Law Cavendish Publishing Limited, 3rd Edition 2005 Journals and Publications Surveillance and Governance: Crime Control and Beyond Volume 10; Mathieu Deflem 2008 Emerald Group Publishing Surveillance in society The effective and proportionate use of surveillance and state databases is a delicate balancing act; 2010 Richard ThomasThe national archives, Data protection act 1998 used 07/01/2013 accessed at: The national archives, Human Rights Act 1998 used 07/01/2013 accessed at:, R., Caeti, T., Loper, D. Fritsch, E. and J. Liederbach (2006). Digital Crime and Digital Terrorism, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice-Hall.The Telegraph, Time for some realism over the 7/7 bombings ; 2009 used on 08/01/2013 accessed at:, R. (2003). “After 9/11: A Surveillance State?” in C. Brown (ed.) Lost Liberties: Ashcroft and the Assault on Personal Freedom, pp. 52-74,New York: The New Press.Word Count: 2000

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