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Control and Care in the Surveillance Age

Are Canadians living in a surveillance state? With revelations of banks retaining legal authority to monitor client browsing data, and a number of new laws, such as Bill C-13 and Bill C-51, allowing government agencies greater access to online communication, some critics fear that Canada is already under the looming shadow of Big Brother. On the other hand, some say that when it comes to internet surveillance, Canadian laws do not go far enough. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Bob Paulson argues that the current legal framework does not allow for effective online policing, leaving Canadians vulnerable to cyber-attacks and other security threats.

In the ‘Post-Snowden’ era, the alert has been raised on government programs, which transgress into an individual’s sphere of privacy. The right to privacy is guaranteed by Canadian legislation. However, it is also generally accepted that a certain level of surveillance is a necessary part of civic life. Surveillance allows authorities to track diseases, monitor population trends, and maintain law and order. As global societies attempt to preemptively defend themselves against extremist acts of violence, lawmakers argue that more surveillance is imperative. In order to benefit from greater protection, individuals may have to sacrifice not only their privacy, but also their freedom.

Extensive surveillance has other, more negative implications as well. Human beings are curious and autonomous by nature. Privacy advocates argue they should be allowed to voice opinions, explore interests, and form connections without restrictions or fear of punishment.

Permissible methods and the appropriate extent of surveillance programs is an unresolved issue. When does surveillance go too far? Current debates centre on how much of our data should be subject to external oversight, and what should the public know about the laws regulating government surveillance. An analysis of contemporary views on surveillance may provide insight into the issue.

Surveillance Theory

Historically, surveillance theory has centered on Michel Foucault’s panoptic model, where surveillance is a tool of social control. Panoptic theories consider surveillance to be intimately connected with coercion, repression, discipline, and domination. Under a system of constant surveillance, the surveyors have undue power over constituents. Individuals are easily organized into groups, and classified by apparent level of threat to public safety. Every action may be monitored in anticipation of correcting socially deviant behaviour or preventing undesirable activity.

The ‘Elf on the Shelf’ can be used as a tool to modify the behaviour of children before Christmas.

Under this model, individuals do not know when they are under surveillance, but are aware that they may be monitored at any time. This leads to disciplined self-monitoring. A recent publication from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives draws a parallel between a panoptical surveillance society and the popularization of the Christmas toy, ‘Elf on the Shelf’. Under the continuous and covert watch of the Elf, children learn to change their behaviour, conforming to the Santa and parent contrived definition of ‘nice’ versus ‘naughty’. While seemingly innocuous, the authors argue that the toy is preparing future generations for ‘dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures’.

This may be so, but an emerging alternative theory contests that in modern times, surveillance is a two-way street. Our current society is not a panopticon, where the masses are monitored by a powerful elite. It is rather a synopticon, where the many also survey the few. With the widespread adoption of social media, and personal surveillance tools such as smart phones and webcams, everyone can be said to take part in surveillance.

Society has recognized that greater surveillance over public officials is part of the new world order as well. Following allegations of police brutality in the United States, a popular movement has called for body-cameras affixed to law enforcement. This surveillance technology would deter abuse of authority, and provide a reliable record when violence does occur.

An example of a body-camera

In Canada, elected officials have also demanded greater surveillance over those in power. With the aim of reducing misuse of political funds , the former Conservative government introduced a law which would impose extensive financial surveillance over political figures. If it is brought back by the new government, agencies and political entities will be subject to much closer financial monitoring.

A final theoretical viewpoint is that surveillance is inherently neutral. A technical process above all, surveillance is merely a method of gathering information. Viewed neutrally, and non-threateningly, it is understandable that surveillance naturally increases as technology evolves. Under this view, society is not disciplinarian or under authoritarian control. We simply live in a society where data sharing constantly occurs and surveillance, by authorities, corporations, and private citizens may soon become normalized.

Living in the Surveillance Age

Although surveillance is a technical process, the political implications cannot be ignored. Legislatively, the issue of regulating surveillance and data accessibility is far from resolved. As the technology develops, and new threats emerge, the issue will become more complex, and possibly more politically polarizing.

As our society determines acceptable surveillance systems, the duality of the technology needs to be considered. Surveillance may be used as a tool of control and coercion, but it also allows authorities to provide care, and empowers both public and private entities to promote justice and civic-minded behaviour. Comprehensive laws are necessary. A legal framework which embraces both positive and negative aspects of surveillance, as well the full capabilities of the technology, will leave society truly protected.

Kelsey Berg
Kelsey Berg is a graduate of the University of Alberta, with a BA in Psychology. She is also the first student from the francophone Campus Saint-Jean, to obtain the joint certificate in Community Service Learning. Kelsey is currently enrolled in the Master of Public Health program at Benedictine University in IL, USA. She has a special interest in the Canadian Forces, and their role in ensuring global security and prosperity.