Several Canadian universities, including Queen’s and the University of Victoria, recently launched a multi-disciplinary study on the sociological and cultural impacts of surveillance. “The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting” received $2.5 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
We all know surveillance is a part of our everyday life. With our dependence on computers, the widespread sharing of our personal information with individuals and institutions, and the heightened concern about security by governments, every one is a potential candidate for some form of surveillance — on the street, at work, while at play, or even at home.
The New Transparency has proposed a series of lofty goals — to make “visible the identities of individuals, workings of institutions and flows of information never before seen” — using surveillance as the key to gather this data. The project intends to focus on “three vitally important questions”:
1) What factors contribute to the general expansion of surveillance as a technology of governance in late modern societies?
2) What are the underlying principles, technological infrastructures and institutional frameworks that support surveillance practice?
3) What are the social consequences of such surveillance both for institutions and for ordinary people?
In the past week, we have seen the government announce over $60 million for a new home for the Communications Security Establishment — Canada’s leading electronic surveillance agency. On a more practical level, more and more police forces are arguing for the proliferation of video surveillance, whether to increase security in our local park, to guarantee the safety of transit workers, or to prepare for the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
As a society, we have to consistently question any demand for increased surveillance. The OPC has set guidelines for the imposition of video surveillance by law enforcement agencies: these are also a useful series of questions to be posed whenever an organization proposes to place us under a stronger microscope.