SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society

SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society

by John Gilliom, Torin Monahan


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We live in a surveillance society. Anyone who uses a credit card, cell phone, or even search engines to navigate the Web is being monitored and assessed—and often in ways that are imperceptible to us. The first general introduction to the growing field of surveillance studies, SuperVision uses examples drawn from everyday technologies to show how surveillance is used, who is using it, and how it affects our world.      


Beginning with a look at the activities and technologies that connect most people to the surveillance matrix, from identification cards to GPS devices in our cars to Facebook, John Gilliom and Torin Monahan invite readers to critically explore surveillance as it relates to issues of law, power, freedom, and inequality. Even if you avoid using credit cards and stay off Facebook, they show, going to work or school inevitably embeds you in surveillance relationships. Finally, they discuss the more obvious forms of surveillance, including the security systems used at airports and on city streets, which both epitomize contemporary surveillance and make impossibly grand promises of safety and security.


Gilliom and Monahan are among the foremost experts on surveillance and society, and, with SuperVision, they offeran immensely accessible and engaging guide, giving readers the tools to understand and to question how deeply surveillance has been woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226924434
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/20/2012
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Torin Monahan is associate professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity.

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The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92444-1

Chapter One

My Cell, My Self

The cell phone has eclipsed the Swiss Army knife as the perfect all-in-one tool and toy. From music to money management to e-mail, texting, shopping, research, games, photos, movies, directions, calendars, and even phone calls, this little gadget does it all. In a pinch, it even works as a flashlight. Yours is probably within reach right now. And by the time this book is in print, the list of things you can do with a cell phone will be even longer.

Cell phones are also the perfect symbol of the surveillance society. With the right technology or a little help from a service provider, your cell phone lets the curious know who you are, who your friends are, where you are, and where you've been. With cell phone information, authorities have been able to find lost hikers, rescue kidnapped children, convict mob hit men, and jail political activists. But cell phones aren't all about tracking and finding. Add a bit of extra soft ware and cell phones become roving bugs, allowing remote users to listen in on any conversation in the phones' vicinity. As we'll see, they also mobilize an army of 300 million photographers able to take and transmit still and video images of everything from police misconduct to dorm parties.

To begin rethinking your cell phone from a surveillance perspective, just imagine this (totally fake) news report:

Washington. In legislation signed by the president, the United States government mandated that all citizens carry an electronic device providing live-streamed data on their location, communication activity, and personal interactions. Data banks will constantly record the time, duration, sender, and receiver of all telephone calls and electronic transmissions, while targeted investigations will be able to monitor actual conversations and message content. Cross-analysis of multiparty location records will show patterns of personal interaction and association.

The new program also creates what one official called "300 million eyes" by requiring that each of the mandated devices be equipped with an advanced digital camera able to record and document evidence and transmit it to authorities.

Officials from police, national security, and public health and safety agencies heralded the move. In the words of one, "This brings an end to the darkness. We can now better serve our citizens with a universal capacity to know where everyone is, all the time. We'll know who they're with, who they talk to, when they move, and where they go. This is a massive improvement in our ability to control disease, crime, and terrorism."

To off set the cost of the program, each citizen will be required to pay a monthly fee.

This news story may be fake, but the outcome is real. Except for the government mandate, this is exactly what the cell phone revolution has achieved—monthly fee and all!

There are roughly 300 million cell phone subscribers in the United States and its territories, while the worldwide figure is ready to top 5.3 billion. That's a phenomenal rate of growth when you realize that pocket-size phones weren't even available until the early 1990s. And it's a startling level of saturation, with roughly 90 percent of Americans now using cell phones. But how many of these people understand the basics of how their phone works or what it can do for them (or to them)?

How Things Work

The next couple of pages provide a quick technical overview of how cell phones work and how they fit into the surveillance society. We'll show that the communication and billing functions of our phones make them handy tracking devices. Furthermore, newer features and applications like built-in global positioning systems (GPS), Bluetooth capabilities, and mapping soft ware add more sophisticated means of tapping, tracing, and locating. Finally, we'll turn to one of the most popular features, the camera, and discuss its unique and fascinating place in the surveillance tool kit.

The first thing to point out is that if you have or are part of a service plan, your cell phone knows who you are and shares your identity with the world. Phones contain unique identifying numbers that are transmitted whenever the phone is on. Since these numbers correspond to an account and thus a person, anonymity is difficult to achieve in the cellular world. Some prepaid "go phones" that don't require you to sign up for a plan may seem to provide anonymity, but even they can be used to track and identify the user, since the numbers one calls and the places one goes reveal the user's social network, daily activities, and eventually identity. Anyone closely monitoring and analyzing the data could probably figure it out.

But your phone tells the world a lot more than simply who you are. Other characteristics are logged in routine data collection, and some are right on your bill. This includes whom you call or text, as well as the time, duration, and frequency of your contacts. We can also learn how oft en you roam to other regions or area codes, how oft en you leave the country, and which countries you visit. Other information is generated by how you use your phone, even if the data don't appear on your bill. For instance, a lot can be learned about your interests and social networks by watching how you use Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, or other applications to send messages or pictures to the Internet: what you upload, where you upload it, who responds to you, what images you tag, whom you're tagged with in uploaded images, and so on. A detailed, if partial and skewed, portrait of you can be gleaned from this information. But there's more to it.

So your phone marks who you are and who's in your circle, but how does it tell where you are? There are at least four ways your location can be tracked: through cell towers, GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth. A cell phone is basically a fancy three-channel radio—one channel talks, one channel listens, a third channel arranges communication with the system. Let's talk about that third, quiet channel. When a cell phone is on, it's in steady communication with the now ubiquitous cell towers and antennae—known as sites. That's because the equipment needs to figure out which sites will handle the signal from your regularly moving phone. Even if a call or data transfer is not being made, the service provider's equipment actively monitors the identity, direction, and strength of the signal. Because the towers monitor the identification and signal direction of each cell phone, and because multiple towers allow "triangulation" on a particular phone, its location can always be tracked. Through this particular process, your location can be narrowed to within a couple of hundred yards in urban areas that have multiple antennae.

Cell Phone Protests

An international boycott commenced after it was learned that the Nokia Corporation, the world's largest cell phone manufacturer and a major provider of cell phones in Iran, sold the Iranian government a surveillance and control center that enabled it to track and limit communications during a wave of pro-democracy rallies in 2009. The boycott expressed widespread popular anger over Nokia's complicity in the Iranian government's efforts to monitor phone traffic, scramble and jam service, and listen in on conversations. According to the boycott organizers, hundreds were jailed "thanks to Nokia's technology." Just as cell phones and social media were influential tools used by protestors in Iran and, later on, in other countries during the 2011 revolutionary movement known as the Arab Spring, these technologies also open people up to extraordinarily repressive forms of social control.

But triangulation is old news. Unless you've had your phone for years, it also includes a legally mandated GPS, which can disclose your location with pinpoint accuracy—typically within fifty feet. Phones registered in the United States and Canada are now linked in with the E911 service. This service is intended to coordinate emergency responses by, for instance, automatically marking your location when you dial 911. With this, of course, comes the capacity for constant surveillance of your travels. Many advanced cell phones are always signaling their location, even when they're turned off. The implications of these new capabilities require no speculation: for a modest fee, police authorities have convenient access to Sprint web portals, for instance, which allowed them to undertake 8 million cell phone GPS location checks in 2009 alone. And that's just one company.

Ordinary citizens can approximate this kind of tracking through mobile phone applications such as Google Latitude, which encourages people to extend their social networking activities into physical space. Latitude users can track the precise location of willing friends, family members, or others and watch them move across a map. According to a Google spokesperson, "This adds a social flavor to Google maps and makes it more fun." This fun, much like Twitter and other interactive applications for sharing information, introduces the potential for generating massive amounts of personal data, although Google claims to be uninterested in stockpiling or selling e-data to marketers—at least for the moment.

Most smartphones (like iPhones, Androids, or Blackberries) are also WiFi devices that continuously scout for available networks so that data can be pushed to the device, even if you're not actively surfing the web or checking e-mail. WiFi networks, as you may already know, are assigned unique IP (Internet protocol) addresses that are tied to physical locations—like someone's home address or the pizza place on the corner. When your phone uses these networks, it promiscuously reveals the IP address, essentially saying to the world, "I'm here! In this city, on this street, in this building!" That may increase the functionality of your apps so that you can get accurate directions or recommendations to nearby restaurants, but it also means that your location is always known.

What's more, your phone is archiving all your locations and movements, creating a highly detailed story of your mobile life, just waiting for the FBI, or hackers, or your creepy stalker ex-boyfriend to access and exploit. Apple iPhones store all location data in a file on the phones and routinely beam them up to the Apple mother ship, but anyone accessing your phone (physically or remotely) could also learn all your previous locations. And Google's Android phones promote unwelcome uses of this sort by making the previous locations of your phone publicly available on the Internet for anyone to see. All someone has to do is capture your device's unique hardware number (also known as a Media Access Control [MAC] address), which WiFi networks do automatically, and courtesy of Google they could discover your previous locations, such as your home address, the coffee shop you visit every Thursday afternoon at 2:15, the works. The potential for abuse is high.

There are also new surveillance functions opened up by Bluetooth-enabled phones, headsets, or other devices that share your information within a smaller radius (about thirty feet). For example, shopping malls can set up Bluetooth surveillance networks to track where people shop and for how long or to send specific messages related to the shopper's location. This was just what the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark did to find out which animals and attractions visitors found most popular; they even offered "bluetags" to help parents track their children. (Be careful with your Bluetooth: "bluesnarfing" hackers can access a Bluetoother's address book, e-mail, and call history or even hijack a phone remotely to make calls and send messages.)

Moreover, there are reported cases of FBI agents surreptitiously reprogramming cell phone soft ware to convert cell phones into remote microphones—"roving bugs"—to listen to face-to-face conversations occurring near the phone, even when the phone is turned off. This is how incriminating evidence was collected on mobsters in the Genovese crime family in New York, leading to arrests in 2006 for labor racketeering and other charges. Various online businesses, such as FlexiSPY, purport to make this sort of eavesdropping available to anyone who can pay $350 a year and get her hands on the target phone for fifteen minutes. ?? Soon, we expect, you won't even need that fifteen minutes with the phone, since soft ware will allow remote enabling. If this surprises you, think about some of the games, songs, and apps you've downloaded—it's not much harder to remotely insert a small soft ware application to enhance the surveillance functions just as you'd download a game.

It's the Latest: "Augmented Reality"

A new software protocol known as augmented reality allows phone users to hold their phone cameras up to "tagged" objects in the world (movie posters, restaurants, artwork, etc.) to receive additional information about them. With some augmented reality applications, users can affix their own virtual tags to objects or places so others can find and view them; this practice has the potential to exponentially increase the number of things tagged in this material-virtual hybrid space. When people voluntarily tag items, though, they are also leaving behind a remainder: a digital fingerprint that links them to those spaces at certain times.

Between billing records, triangulation, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, and tracking applications, the little device in your pocket or bag makes you constantly knowable and mappable. This can be a great thing, since you may find yourself lost in a national forest, trapped in a remote area with a car breakdown, or, perhaps worse, downtown on a Saturday night with no friends in sight. Once you alert someone, not only will help be on the way; it should be able to find the right place.

In an interesting twist, cell phones also turn the user into a roving surveillance unit, because most phones now have a built-in camera that allows you to shoot and transmit videos and stills of anything you see. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its hundredth anniversary, it launched a website that allows people to upload footage of police misconduct for its legal team to review. Others have used cell phone cameras to take voyeuristic photos in locker rooms or public settings, and some turn to online posting sites specializing in such material. You've also, no doubt, uploaded and viewed plenty of cell phone shots on social networking sites.

This dimension of the cell phone's surveillance capacity can challenge the way we usually think about surveillance—as something done by large powers like governments and corporations. And though we're not entirely sure that one individual snapping a quick picture counts as "surveillance," it seems clear that the sum total of all those quick pics adds an important new dimension to the surveillance society. To put it bluntly, we've shift ed to a new level of ongoing scrutiny when we live in a society with over 300 million cameras waiting to record and broadcast anything we do. We're observed today in many ways that most of us probably take for granted and don't even see as surveillance.

The Volunteer Army

No one ordered you to get a cell phone. As one of the most rapidly spreading personal technologies in history, cell phones have permeated the population in a stunningly short time. As status symbol, mobility enhancer, safety tool, toy, camera, web browser, address book, and more, it's hard to beat these multifaceted devices. When a surveillance technology is gladly, even fervently, adopted by a population, things get interesting. If you think about some of the iconic images of surveillance—prisons, IRS audits, final exams—you don't picture joyous throngs clamoring to wrap their arms around them. But the beauty of cell phones—and we'll see this with things like credit cards and social networking sites as well—is that we sign up and we like it, or at least most of us do. (And in case you're wondering, yes, the authors also have and enjoy cell phones, credit cards, iToys, and many of the other must-have accessories of the surveillance society. We're all in this together.)

Expanding Surveillance

Cell phones enable extensive surveillance of your location, your electronic communication, your social interaction, your conversations, and the events happening around you. But chances are, until you started reading this book, you didn't think of your cell phone as a surveillance device. That's because the word surveillance is too oft en tied to things like video cameras, government spying programs, and black vans full of geeks wearing large headphones—potent symbols that simply don't represent the full range of surveillance in society. One of our main goals is to expand your understanding of surveillance by demonstrating how it works in daily life. But before we show you more, we've got to spend a little time developing a broader and richer conceptualization of the very idea of surveillance. In the pages that follow, we argue that fundamental changes in the breadth and nature of surveillance compel a wider and more nuanced understanding of the term. We then move on to a broader questioning of some of the other famous terms in the surveillance vocabulary, like Big Brother, the panopticon, and the right to privacy. (Continues...)

Excerpted from SuperVision by JOHN GILLIOM TORIN MONAHAN Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1 My Cell, My Self
2 It’s in the Cards
3 Lives Online
4 Surveillance in Schools
5 Watching You Work
6 Security at Any Cost?


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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TERRRIBLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE you cant print and directions suck never buy this i will never buy again