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Civic Engagement and Surveillant Environments

SSHRC (Project Completed, Spring 2007)

This study investigates surveillance in public and “quasi public” spaces. In the first phase we look at the classic questions of the direct effects on behaviour but with a new empirical approach based on a comparative study of surveillance in public transit settings. We then forge a new theoretical perspective on surveillance through innovative approaches from communication and “critical constructivist” theories of technology. Finally, we bring theory and empirical work together in the third phase of the research, looking at technology, human agency, and citizenship in a surveillance environment.

In the past decade, video surveillance has become widespread and the underlying technological foundation has been fundamentally altered by the transformation from an analog to a digital technology. Although the surveillance industry is rapidly adapting to this new reality, academics and policy makers have only recently started to address the implications of the digitized, networked and software-driven surveillance database-systems of the 21st century. This research will shed light on the technological infrastructure for video surveillance by using technology assessment and a critical constructivist theory to analyse our comparative field studies.

Recent debates on the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in urban settings have focused on the pros and cons of surveillance systems. Proponents regard CCTV as a highly sophisticated tool that increases security and deters crime. Others see “big brother.” The use of video monitoring systems has proliferated across Canada and with that proliferation has come extensive debates about the use of surveillance technologies in public (streets and sidewalks) and “quasi public” (malls and transit) spaces. Advocates of CCTV point out the benefits, including: deters deviant/criminal behaviour, reduces policing costs, assists prosecutions, and heightens public sense of security. Opponents to public surveillance voice concerns, including: potential invasions of privacy, misuses of recorded images by third parties, and a false sense of security due to flaws in the imaging, storing, and monitoring of video surveillance systems. These questions are investigated in phase one.

Beyond these concerns, however, the long-term implications relating to citizenship and political action need further exploration. In particular, we consider the implications of surveillance for democratic rights to free speech and assembly. We argue that the lack of reciprocity in a video surveillance system – individuals cannot see who is watching them – implies an ambiguity about expected behaviour. Does this mean a diminished range of possible political action? This research project will also explore inversions and subversions of surveillance technologies by people in their everyday lives.

The proposed research is innovative in a number of ways. In the first phase we compare the surveillance outcomes in two quasi-public spaces: those that utilize the architectural concept of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, and those that do not. The second and third phases of the research will go beyond the standard “first order” impact studies of surveillance (e.g., is there less crime? is it simply displaced?) and look at the role of human agency, the inherent ability of people to act independently and not be pawns of a technological system, in settings where CCTV and public space overlap. This analysis will shed light on the actions of those who use surveillance technologies for purposes of resistance and creativity.

Our focus on agency and our critical constructivist approach will produce a new theoretical model for the study of surveillance technology in society. This approach will place our researchers inside the “black box” of technology in order to formulate a more nuanced understanding of how the desired outcomes from a technological system are negotiated and appropriated by those who develop, use and are exposed to it.