The Surveillance & Every Day Life Group

A cross-disciplinary approach to social justice issues pressurised by surveillance practices: privacy, liberty, social profiling and the monitoring of borders and genetic units.

Based at the University of Sydney in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the group researches:

  • How and why has surveillance expanded as a mechanism of governance in contemporary society?
  • What relations between states and private corporations are developing in the deployment of surveillance practices
  • How is surveillance represented in popular culture and what effect does this have on individualised knowledge, awareness and understandings?
  • What are the socio-political and ethical consequences of surveillance for humankind?

Background

The intensification, diversification and routinisation of surveillance in recent decades has been remarkable.

The spread of biometric technologies (now in our cell phones), CCTV cameras, loyalty cards, body scanners, DNA swabs, RFID tags and internet cache cookies, are just some of the many ways in which personal information is now routinely extracted from and given by individuals at strategic transactional ‘points of contact’.

Surveillance makes particular phenomena discernible and identifiable, usually in order to serve the interests of data-hungry social and commercial institutions, who gather data and then apply complex analytical formulae and protocols in a bid to classify and sort information, label and categorise abnormalities and identify particular patterns for pre-emptive intervention.

The steady growth of surveillance cultures and the ‘normalisation’ of surveillance practices correlate with wider socio-historical changes:

  •  the establishment of consumer capitalism as the dominant mode of production (and thus related supervision of workers and consumption)
  •  bureaucracy as the dominant form of institutional organisation (and the related auditing this facilitates)
  •  liberal democratic nation states as the dominant style of political administration (and the accompanying forms of security, taxation, voting and welfare management this governance requires).

Technological advancement, particularly in computer applications and related dependence, and wider cultures of risk, fear, distrust and consumption, have also proved significant in legitimating surveillance as a tool of social order, organisation, and popular entertainment.

As a consequence of increasingly pluralised gazes, the actions of both citizens and institutions alike in the modern world are being scrutinised as never before.

Although surveillance makes social action visible, the relative invisibility of surveillance as a social process has meant that many of the methods and analytical techniques utilised have become ‘naturalised’, relatively unexceptional objects and unproblematic processes in the physical and cultural fabric of everyday living.

Surveillance can be legitimately comprehended as unique historical process, cultural form, economic commodity, political strategy, legalistic practice and social reality. Consequently it lends itself, as an object of investigation, particularly well to a cross-disciplinary endeavour.

Contact: Associate Professor Charlotte Epstein | charlotte.epstein@sydney.edu.au

Updates:

Australia set to collect more biometric data at airports

Australian police back national facial recognition database 

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