Monthly Archives: February 2009

The media conversation about surveillance: the slowly shifting sands of time

In a recent study, a colleague and I examined the media conversation around public area video surveillance in Canada, analyzing more than 500 articles from 10 Canadian cities, spanning a period of 6 years (1999-2005). We were concerned to know how video surveillance is framed (i.e. what is discussed, what is ignored) and what the coverage might mean for how citizens understand the increasing presence of surveillance technologies and practices in their lives. 

The study will be published later this year or in 2010, but here is a summary of the key findings:

1. The coverage focuses almost exclusively on situational events, failing to engage wider contextual issues relating to the pervasiveness of surveillance. 

2. The media agenda is driven largely by the claims of police and government sources — academics, privacy advocates and community groups (on all sides of the debate), in comparison, exercise very little influence over the definitional parameters of the coverage. 

3. Coverage conflates the monitoring of open, public spaces like city streets with more bounded spaces like shopping malls and banks. This raises important theoretical and political questions about how we understand and use “public” and “private” space.  

4. Despite extensive research which questions the ability of video surveillance cameras to prevent crime, the dominant theme in CCTV news stories is the “deterrence capacity” of surveillance systems. 

5. In the very limited extent to which the problems associated with surveillance are discussed, issues of personal privacy are by far the dominant concern — questions of ethics and efficacy, not to mention costs/benefits, are virtually absent. 



Like policy making and public opinion, news reporting of social issues like surveillance can fluctuate over time, subject to changes in knowledge and in the communication activities of institutional sources. This became apparent in relation to the issue of surveillance recently when the Ottawa Citizen published Our Surveillance Society, a five-part investigation of the expansion of CCTV surveillance systems across Canada; the growing problem of identity theft; the surveillant properties of social networking sites like Facebook; the use of RFID (radio frequency identification devices) by retailers and the implications for personal privacy; and the rise of sousveillance (the inverse of surveillance in which those who are typically the subjects of monitoring initiatives turn the gaze back onto those in control with the use of visualizing technologies (think activist recordings of police brutality at demonstrations, later broadcast online or via news networks)).

Although the series contains some minor factual inaccuracies and (in the case of CCTV surveillance) a rather thin discussion about what is actually happening in Canada, it offers a very important contribution to the media and public conversations about surveillance.  The series explores many of the problematic issues relating to increased surveillance in daily life, from what it signifies about the changing nature of trust, to the regulatory and legislative challenges associated with balancing individual liberties and collective security, to the dialectic between care and control that is inherent in modern surveillance systems. As our research demonstrated, these issues are rarely raised, let alone explored in detail.

An open and honest discussion about CCTV and other forms of surveillance in Canada is long overdue. The optimist in me is hopeful that the Citizen’s series will spark the kind of interest and energy that are required to mobilize stakeholders into beginning such a conversation. The realist recognizes that the barn doors have been wide open for a very long time…

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