by Emrys Westacott
Surveillance of people by governments and other institutions is an ancient practice. According to the legend, the first Christmas occurred in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by the emperor Augustus. One of the first acts of William the Conqueror after becoming king of England was to commission the Doomsday Book–an exact accounting of people and property throughout the realm.
Knowing who people are, where they live, what they own, what they think, and whom they associate with has long been recognized as key to holding and exercising power. Not surprisingly, therefore, chief surveillance officers like Cardinal Richelieu and J. Edgar Hoover have been among the most powerful men of their time.
It is a commonplace that the technological revolution based on the digital computer has made possible a revolution in surveillance. This process is well underway and can be expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Innovations that constitute this revolution include:
- cameras monitoring highways, airports, banks, shops, malls, streets and other public placestelephone records of every call made, often including a record of the actual conversation
- monitoring and recording of e-mail, text messages, and other internet activity; of all financial transactions, particularly banking, credit card purchases, and loans; and of individual shopping habits from large item mail order purchases to the particular brands of tinned fruit one prefers at the supermarket
- digitization (which allows for more detail plus enhanced accessibility) of hence of medical records, academic records, and other data bases of personal information, including fingerprints and other unique identifiers, used by police, immigration services, and other government agencies concerned with law enforcement or security
- tracking devices attached to people or vehicles
- implants that monitor such things as a person's pulse or insulin levels and send alerts if these change dramatically
The list could be extended almost indefinitely. One notable consequence of all this monitoring is that the police and other agencies with access to this information can track our movements much more easily than in the past. Every time we send a text message or swipe a credit card, they fix our location.
The revolution in surveillance technology gives rise to at least three different kinds of fear.