Technologies of Mass Observation

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Revision of 27 October 2000

Notes for the 'Mass Observation Movement' Forum, run by Experimenta Media Arts and Open Channel, Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, 26 October 2000

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2000

This document is at



The 'Mass Observation Movement' Forum aims to "explore surveillance technology, its impact on broader community, uses in cyber technology and how artists are interpreting these major changes in personal privacy and the monitoring of society".

On 26 October 2000, it ran an event on Surveillance and its Role in Contemporary Life, comprising a screening of several short films, followed by a panel session. The panellists comprised:


Unlike the audience, I'm not a devotee of the visual media. That will shortly lead me to a conclusion about the mainstream social perception of what 'surveillance' is. But its first consequence is that my starting-point is not films, but rather dystopian novels, and their descendants in cyberpunk sci-fi.

Zamyatin's crucial book 'We' (1922) perceived the omnipotent State as using aeros trailing long black 'observation tubes', supplemented by listening devices called 'membranes', to exert control over people's behaviour.

The best-known, although highly derivative, dystopian work was Eric Blair's '1984' (1948). The instruments of surveillance that enabled social control were wall-mounted, two-way 'telescreen' displays, supplemented by physical observation conducted from helicoptors.

Some years later, in the sci-fi classic 'The Shockwave Rider' (1975), John Brunner perceived the use of the then only slowly emergent net as a means of social control. The net notion was extended by cyberpunk sci-fi, most notably 'William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984), into the experience of 'cyberspace' and infrastructure of 'the matrix'. The cyberpunk genre takes for granted not only the fading of the power of the State, but also the dramatic increase in power of 'hypercorps'. Those parts of society that lie outside the virtual walls of the corporations are reduced to neo-tribal conditions.

In the mid-1970s, Foucault sought an image for his 'society as prison' metaphor, and was moved to invoke Bentham's late 18th century 'panopticon'. This was envisaged as a central watch-tower intended to enable visual surveillance, and hence social control, of prison-yards.

Back in the real world, at the dawn of the 21st century, camera-supported video-surveillance is being routinely applied. It has modest deterrent effect, but its primary outcome is the displacement of undesirable behaviour from places like the immediate vicinity of ATMs, shopping centres and cinema precincts, to somewhere else. Pursued to its logical conclusion, the video-camera approach to public safety demands cameras everywhere, and cameras watching cameras. The preventative value of visual surveillance is therefore inadequate; but its usefulness as a weapon of detection is also very limited; and as a tool of investigation it leaves a great deal to be desired. Yet, despite its vacuousness, this is currently the default strategy-of-choice for dull-thinking public servants and shopping-centre designers.

Visual surveillance is gradually being enhanced through the application of pattern-matching. Automated recognition of vehicle registration plates has been running for some years on N.S.W. highways (and has been applied to private vehicles without public consultation or legislative authority, despite having been nominally designed as a means of monitoring commercial vehicles). But recognition of faces, and even moreso of incidents, is still very challenging, and continues to be a proper subject for research grant requests.

Video-cameras generate vast streams of images which need humans to interpret them, which are not exploited, and which cannot be exploited. The proposition of ever-more cameras in ever-more locations is self-defeating, because it ensures that most of the images they gather and project are never seen or acted upon.

An important theme of my presentation is, moreover, that social construction of the surveillance notion has been seriously limited by being rooted in the visual. Hence (to coin a phrase), we have been blind to the other forms of surveillance; and during the last 50 years, these have become far more pervasive and far more threatening than visual monitoring.

Electronic tools have greatly enhanced the capacity for surveillance. Directional microphones and cameras on pivots are guided by signal-detection devices. Telephone conversations are monitored, recorded and analysed. Telephone, email traffic and web-usage are routinely monitored by 'spook' agencies and employers alike. Mobile devices (such as telephones) are about to become 'the spy in your own pocket', because they are being 'enhanced' to continually report their location, to an accuracy of yards.

During the second half of the twentieth century, a new technology surged to prominence that had not even been contemplated by Zamyatin and Blair. 'Dataveillance' involves the surveillance of populations in general, and of targeted individuals in particular, through observation of the copious and increasing data trails generated by their activities. Personal data is routinely shared and abused on a vast scale by governments and corporations alike. So-called data protection laws have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm, because they are designed to be permissive of, and in some cases even to actively legitimise, privacy-invasive practices.

Moreover, hitherto anonymous transactions are being actively converted into identified ones, in order to intensify the data trails. A case in point is a Melbourne's proud leadership in the area of 'intelligent transportation systems' (ITS): Melbourne CityLink is the first major public thoroughfare anywhere in the world which demands identity as a condition of its use. It thereby denies anonymity, and opens up citizen behaviour to governments, and consumer behaviour to corporations.

Vital to dataveillance is consistent identification of people. There has been continual pressure from public servants for a general-purpose id scheme. Despite the emphatic public rejection of the Australia Card in 1987, there have been successive projects to enhance and extend the reach of the Tax File Number and the Medicare Number; and the latest round involves a unique patient identifier proposed for use across the entire, vast health care sector. Added to this is the government's empowerment of banks to demand that individuals produce 100 point's worth of documents in order to be permitted to use a name for bank-facilitated monetary transactions.

In the context of the Internet, digital signature schemes are being devised to force individuals to identify themselves consistently when communicating electronically. Biometrics are being increasingly imposed on prisoners, but also on accusees, and now on all prison visitors in N.S.W., and on employees in secure premises. Related initiatives include DNA collection from whole populations of suspects (e.g. as part of rape investigations in country towns), and ever more attempts to impose U.S.-style drug-testing on employees, sports participants, school-students, and insurance-applicants.

Mesanwhile, id-bearing chips are being embedded not merely in parcels, pallets and cards, but also anklets on prisoners and senile dementia patients. They are even being inserted directly into mammals that are conventionally regarded as being intelligent, not only into the neck-flesh of pets and breeding stock, but even into the tooth-enamel of American children.

These schemes overlook the fact that individuals perform multiple roles, have multiple identities, and have multiple identifiers (or 'nyms' as they're more conveniently called). What's worse, many of these schemes are being devised expressly so as to deny people the ability to sustain multiple ids. That's completely counter to the kind of ambiguous, flexible, trusting, tolerant, vibrant, creative and adaptive society that we're used to living in.

Despite the tone of this address, the situation is not hopeless. There are ways of applying surveillance technologies that balance the interests of the various stakeholders. For example, the principle of 'reasonable grounds' can be used. Rather than permitting routinisation of surveillance, and potentials that are always switched on, reasonable grounds should be required firstly for facilities to be established, and secondly for them to be operational at any particular point in time. Consider buldings in which sensitive functions are peformed (e.g. a remand centre, a family court, an Israeli travel agency). While an actual threat exists, having cameras filming the traffic at the entrances to such buildings is prudent, not sinister.

But powerful interests (particularly law enforcement agencies, social control agencies, marketers, major corporations who are continually tangling with activists, and high-tech providers) are blithely ignoring the interests of the public generally, and of those segments of the citizenry and consumery most directly affected.

Those organisations are being aided and abetted by nerd engineers. In the comfort of their laboratories, they overlook the social and political impacts of what they're doing. The future will judge the ethicality of their behaviour even more savagely than that of the nuclear scientists of the 1920s and 30s.

A previous speaker at this event, Jude McCullagh, distinguished the old notion of 'spy as a mole' inside the club, from the new notion of 'spy as serpent', winding its way throughout the community's space. I suggest that a more appropriate way of representing the situation is that surveillance technologies are being allowed to become intrinsic to, or embedded within, the social system itself. Rather than being a definable, distinguishable entity, surveillance is increasingly just part of 'the way we do things here'.

Artists, citizens and consumers had better come together and do something very quickly about the ravages that powerful institutions are perpetrating with the technologies of visual, electronic and data observation, because the delicate feather of freedom is being trampled underfoot.


A recent paper on a closely-related topic is 'While You Were Sleeping ... Surveillance Technologies Arrived'. This was written in response to an invitation from the periodical AQ (Australian Quarterly). See also 'A 'Future Trace' on Dataveillance: The Anti-Utopian and Cyberpunk Literary Genres'.

For more detail on the various technologies and their impacts, see the catalogue of my own papers, and some references to works by other authors.


Go to Roger's Home Page.

Go to the contents-page for this segment.

Send an email to Roger

Created: 26 October 2000

Last Amended: 27 October 2000

These community service pages are a joint offering of the Australian National University (which provides the infrastructure), and Roger Clarke (who provides the content).
The Australian National University
Visiting Fellow, Faculty of
Engineering and Information Technology,
Information Sciences Building Room 211
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, ACN: 002 360 456
78 Sidaway St
Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6288 1472, 6288 6916