Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology

Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology

by Gary T. Marx

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We live in an age saturated with surveillance. Our personal and public lives are increasingly on display for governments, merchants, employers, hackers—and the merely curious—to see. In Windows into the Soul, Gary T. Marx, a central figure in the rapidly expanding field of surveillance studies, argues that surveillance itself is neither good nor bad, but that context and comportment make it so.

In this landmark book, Marx sums up a lifetime of work on issues of surveillance and social control by disentangling and parsing the empirical richness of watching and being watched. Using fictional narratives as well as the findings of social science, Marx draws on decades of studies of covert policing, computer profiling, location and work monitoring, drug testing, caller identification, and much more, Marx gives us a conceptual language to understand the new realities and his work clearly emphasizes the paradoxes, trade-offs, and confusion enveloping the field. Windows into the Soul shows how surveillance can penetrate our social and personal lives in profound, and sometimes harrowing, ways. Ultimately, Marx argues, recognizing complexity and asking the right questions is essential to bringing light and accountability to the darker, more iniquitous corners of our emerging surveillance society.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226286075
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Gary T. Marx is professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Undercover: Police Surveillance in America. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New Republic.

Read an Excerpt

Windows into the Soul

Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology

By Gary T. Marx

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-28607-5


Defining the Terms of Surveillance Studies

We are at any moment those who separate the connected or connect the separate.


Getting to my conceptual planet, country, region, neighborhood, house and room involves a series of permeable, moveable Russian dolls within dolls.


Whether in academic or popular discussions the term surveillance is often used in a vague, imprecise and, seemingly, self-evident fashion. That is also the case for accompanying terms such as privacy, publicity, secrecy, confidentiality, anonymity, identifiability, and borders, which can simply describe outcomes of surveillance practices or may involve rules designed to ensure or avoid such outcomes. This chapter first considers definitions of these terms. It then turns to a second set of concepts useful for analyzing the organization and structure of surveillance settings which produce such outcomes (e.g., the role played as an agent or subject of surveillance).

Two major forms of studying the topic can be noted: the surveillance essay and the focused empirical inquiry. The surveillance essay grows out of the theoretical traditions of political economy, social control, law and society, and criminology. Such essays tend to draw on and extend the work of Michel Foucault (although he was writing about earlier centuries); and further in the background the ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, Weber, Nietzsche, Marx, Bentham, Rousseau, and Hobbes; and even further back the watchful and potentially wrathful eye of the biblical God of the Old Testament. (The ancient of course can be combined with the most modern; see the warning in a church's parking lot in fig. 1.1.)

The surveillance essay seeks to capture the appearance of a new kind of society but without enough specificity to take us beyond very general statements. (See chap. 2, table 2.1). It generally does not begin by offering an inclusive definition of surveillance, nor does it identify components that would systematically permit differentiating the new from the old forms, making comparisons within and across these, or seeing what is universal in human societies.

If the theoretical essays tend to be too broad, the focused empirical inquiries are often too narrowing, divorced from larger questions and too often unaware of research in nearby fields. Many empirical studies focus on only one technology, such as databases, work, communication and location monitoring, drug testing, or video (the most frequently written-about forms). This is often done within a single institutional context such as employment, education, or law enforcement, rather than across contexts. The occasional studies that are more comparative, looking across technologies or settings, generally do so with a single disciplinary focus or method. The work of some journalists and text writers is an exception, although their emphasis is usually on summarizing the literature, rather than extending it.

The numerous strands of theory and research in geographically and academically diverse areas indicate a boom, yet there is a lack of integration (and even awareness) among literatures. They do not adequately build on each other. There are relatively few middle-range approaches involving systematic empirical inquiry guided by an effort to assess ideas using standard terms or measures. There is a need for increased communication between fields, improved definition and operationalization of concepts, and nuanced abstractions filled with systematic empirical content. There's too much confusion, duplication, and people talking past each other as they impute different meanings to the same words. There must be some way out of here (as the joker said to the thief). An important first step in overcoming these limitations is to develop better definitions of concepts and a clearer picture of how they connect. We begin with surveillance and the concepts that encircle and cut through it.

Surveillance, Traditional Surveillance, and the New Surveillance

Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower ... anoint the shield. ... Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth!

ISAIAH: 21:5, 6

The English noun surveillance comes from the French verb surveillir. It is related to the Latin term vigilare with its hint that something vaguely sinister or threatening lurks beyond the watchtower and town walls. Still, the threat might be successfully warded off by the vigilant. This ancient meaning is reflected in the narrow association many persons still make of surveillance with the activities of police and national security agencies. Yet in contemporary society the term has a far wider meaning. What is surveillance? Dictionary, thesaurus, and popular usage suggest a set of related activities: look, observe, watch, supervise, control, gaze, stare, view, shadow, scrutinize, examine, check out, scan, screen, inspect, survey, glean, scope, monitor, track, follow, tail, bug, spy, eavesdrop, test, guard. While some of these are more inclusive than others and can be logically linked (e.g., moving from looking to monitoring), and while we might tease out subtle and distinctive meanings for each involving a particular sense, activity, or function, they all reflect what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a family of meanings within the broader concept.

At the most general level, surveillance of humans (often, but not necessarily synonymous with human surveillance) can be defined as regard for or attendance to a person or factors presumed to be associated with a person. A central feature is gathering some form of data connectable to an individual (whether uniquely identified or as a member of a category). Gathering is a many-splendored thing.

In his analysis of "the look" Sartre illustrates a basic distinction. He describes a situation in which an observer is listening from behind a closed door while peeking through a keyhole when "all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall" (1993). He becomes aware that he himself will now be observed. In both cases he is involved in acts of surveillance, but these are very different forms. In the latter case he simply responds and draws a conclusion from a state of awareness. In the former he has taken the initiative, actively and purposively using his senses.

Surveillance can simply mean the routine, autopilot, semiconscious, and often even instinctual awareness in which our sense receptors are at the ready, constantly receiving inputs from whatever is in perceptual range. Hearing a noise that might or might not be a car's backfire and looking before crossing the street are surveillance examples. Drawing conclusions about the gender, age, appearance, and location of those walking toward us as pedestrians (and the need to appropriately orient ourselves so that we don't collide) can be included, as would overhearing a cell phone or restaurant conversation. A census, an opinion or public health survey, an informer's activities, a pacemaker's readings, a poker player interpreting opponents' expressions, a uranium miner being monitored for radio activity, and a computer mining data from credit card use all fit the definition as well.

Within this broad definition, the degree of self-conscious awareness of the act, intentionality, and effort vary greatly, as well as do subsequent efforts that may include trying to block out or avoid what is taken in, as well as trying to magnify it.

Thus, we can identify one form of surveillance as attentiveness or wakefulness in which an agent, with minimal malice or benign aforethought, consumes data from a subject without directly seeking it. This involves a passive, nonreflective and reactive response to the environment. This can be called nonstrategic surveillance. The natural world simply serves up data to the unaided senses.

This contrasts with cases of strategic surveillance. Strategic surveillance often involves an adversarial context in which the subject withholds (or at least does not offer) information. Thus, the surveillance may have an inquisitorial, discovery component. In turn, the subject may engage in information protection and other practices designed to shape what an agent discovers. Or the surveillance may involve information that is waiting to be discovered, unveiled, located, created, collected, or collated, or it may involve information that is known but needs to be validated.

Within the strategic form — which to varying degrees ferrets out what is not freely offered — we can distinguish two mechanisms intended to create (or prohibit) conditions of visibility and legibility — material tools that enhance (or block) the senses and rules about the surveillance itself. While these are independent of each other, they show common linkages, as with rules requiring reporting when there are no available tools for discovery or rules about the conditions of use for tools that are available. A stellar example is the "lantern laws" which prohibited slaves from being out at night unless they carried a lantern (Browne 2015). Here the emphasis is on requiring the subject to make him- or herself visible given the limitations brought by darkness. But note also efforts to alter environments to make them more visible as with the creation of "defensible space": via taking down shrubs or using glass walls (Newman 1972) or less visible à la architecture of bathrooms.

Within this field we can distinguish the traditional from the new surveillance. Traditional surveillance relies on the unaided senses and was characteristic of preindustrial societies. Given these limitations, information tended to stay local and compartmentalized (Locke 2011). Covert and overt watching, hearing (and overhearing), inspections, question asking, and tests and contests fit within the category of traditional surveillance and are found in various forms and degrees in all societies.

With the development of language, numeracy, writing, and more differentiated forms of social organization involving larger political entities, more complex and systematic forms of surveillance appeared based on counting, record keeping, interrogation, informing, infiltration, self-reports, confessions, and the expanded use of tests.

With the emergence of industrial society these forms were supplemented, but hardly displaced, by new surveillance and communication tools that enhanced the senses and cognition. For example, the telescope extended vision. The telegraph and telephone meant conversations could be intercepted far removed from the communicators. Collections of photographs, fingerprints, and other biometric measurements improved the identification of suspects. Forensics offered the ability to match data from different sources. Bureaucratic record keeping sought to rationalize information location, retention, processing, and sharing. Surveillance results became more centralized. New means of measurement and data storage and new statistical techniques improved analysis and meant increased use of prediction relying on behavior modeling.

Yet until digitalization and other advances that began in the last half of the twentieth century, this work was labor intensive, and surveillance results collected in different forms, places, and times were rarely merged. Law enforcement, for example, was still largely inductive, needing to identify a suspect and build an inquiry around that person. Once a suspect was identified, the person's phone could be tapped; a photo, physical measurement, or fingerprint could be compared; data could be gathered using binoculars or discrete tailing; and a polygraph test could be administered. Information from various sources could be combined into a paper dossier.

But the scale, comprehensiveness, speed, and power were modest relative to what was to come. Consider the instantaneous search of vast databases, which can now deductively provide subjects from multiple, integrated data pools, many of which continuously receive real-time information from ubiquitous sensors. The distinction between centralized and decentralized organizational forms breaks down as data flow within and between networks regardless of proximity or the need for a central location or even wire connections.

Dictionary Deficits

One indicator of change from traditional forms of surveillance to the increasingly prominent new ones can be seen in the gap between dictionary definitions and current understandings. To take a prominent example, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, surveillance is defined as "close observation, especially of a suspected person." This definition works well for traditional surveillance (a suspect discreetly followed by police after robbing a bank or an undercover police agent infiltrating a criminal group). However, this historically bounded definition is not adequate for the new forms of surveillance, nor does it capture the more general meaning of surveillance as a fundamental social process across institutions and settings. It also takes attention away from viewing surveillance as a universal process applying to animals as well.

New surveillance technologies are increasingly applied categorically, rather than being "especially" applied to "a suspected person." In broadening the range of suspects (or, better, subjects), the term "a suspected person" takes on a different meaning, implying everyone in a given group. The technologies greatly expand the power of the dragnet.

In a striking innovation, surveillance goes not just to a particular person known beforehand, but to contexts (geographic places and spaces, particular time periods, networks and systems). Various attributes of the disembodied person are attended to, such as consumption and indebtedness patterns, physical remnants, and behavioral aspects such as the way a person walks. These may be categorized into risk and desirability pools.

The dictionary definition also implies a clear distinction between the subject of surveillance and the agent carrying it out. In an age of servants listening behind closed doors, binoculars, and telegraphic interceptions, that separation made sense. The watcher was easily separated from the person watched. Yet with many current uses, classifying role players only as watcher or watched is not possible, and roles may blend and alternate. For example, that is the case for self-surveillance, where the individual is both subject and agent (e.g., monitoring one's driving speed to stay within the limit).

The dictionary definition also needs to be expanded to take account of the several forms of cosurveillance discussed in the last section of this chapter, in which individuals' self-surveillance is joined by that of other watchers.

Some definitions of surveillance are also lacking because they imply a necessary conflict or oppositional relationship between the subject and agent. However, surveillance through technology may instead serve as a facilitator of sociability, merging or alternating the role of agent and subject. Consider, for example, the social networking and location sites or the video camera in recording memorable social events.

The term "close observation" from the traditional dictionary definition also fails to capture contemporary practices. Surveillance may be carried out from afar, as with satellite images or the remote monitoring of communications and work. Nor need it be "close" as in detailed observation; much initial surveillance involves superficial broad scans looking for patterns of interest to be later pursued in detail.

The dated nature of the definition is further illustrated in its seeming restriction to visual means as implied in "observation." The eyes do contain the vast majority of the body's sense receptors in contrast to the much greater role of smell for canines or hearing for bats. For the Greeks the circle, emblematic of the eye, was the perfect shape. Phonetically speaking (and more), "the ayes have it" and culturally the visual is a master metaphor for understanding — note terms and expressions such as "worldview," "I see," "I get the picture," "that's quite a scene," "as seen in," "eagle eye," "eye-opening," and it can also be literal, as with "seeing is believing." "Foresight" is appreciated, in contrast to "hindsight," which is often treated with sarcasm, or the error resulting from "an oversight," which doesn't mean seeing over, as with hierarchical surveillance, but rather the failure to see. Or consider the presumed "insight" from being able "to see through people." William Holden in the film Picnic says, "She saw through me like an x-ray machine." Indeed "seeing through" and "overseeing" are convenient shorthand for the surveillance, even as they need not literally involve the eyes. To "turn a blind eye" is to refuse to acknowledge what the eye provides with the implication that it is accurate. We speak of "the mind's eye" not its ear or nose.


Excerpted from Windows into the Soul by Gary T. Marx. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part 1: Concepts: The Need for a Modest but Persistent Analyticity

1. Defining the Terms of Surveillance Studies
2. So What’s New? Classifying Means for Change and Continuity
3. So What’s Old? Classifying Goals for Continuity and Change
4. The Stuff of Surveillance: Varieties of Personal Information

Part 2: Social Processes

5. Social Processes in Surveillance
6. A Tack in the Shoe and Taking the Shoe Off: Resistance and Counters to Resistance

Part 3: Culture and Contexts

7. Work: The Omniscient Organization Measures Everything That Moves
8. Children: Slap That Baby’s Bottom, Embed That ID Chip, and Let It Begin
9. The Private within the Public: Psychological Report on Tom I. Voire
10. A Mood Apart: What’s Wrong with Tom?
11. Government and More: A Speech by Hon. Rocky Bottoms to the Society for the Advancement of Professional Surveillance

Part 4: Ethics and Policy

12. Techno-Fallacies of the Information Age
13. An Ethics for the New (and Old) Surveillance
14. Windows into Hearts and Souls: Clear, Tinted, or Opaque Today?

Appendix: A Note on Values: Neither Technophobe nor Technophile

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