NOTE: On Sept. 14 – 17, activists with the Freedom not Fear movement will stage an international week of action to oppose surveillance measures from Europe to Australia. To support this effort, EFF is examining surveillance trends and spotlighting international grassroots activism launched in response.

David Lyon is a prominent sociologist, author, and director of the Surveillance Studies Center at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. His most recent book, co-authored with Zygmunt Bauman, is titled Liquid Surveillance. Lyon spent an hour talking with EFF about contemporary surveillance trends such as biometrics, CCTV cameras and legislative proposals for broadened online spying powers for law enforcement.

EFF: We’re seeing proposals in the UK, Australia and Canada, to grant broader powers to law enforcement agencies to intercept online communications. Do you have any thoughts about what’s driving this push, and why we’re seeing so many similar policies floated at the same time?

David Lyon: It relates to a number of things. It’s partly government fear about what can be done with data, the power of data in an era of digitality and social media – Wikileaks being an obvious case-in-point. It’s a fear of the movement of information and how the movement of information might affect balance of power, or political stability. So that’s one factor: The realization among governments that there is tremendous power in information.

Another issue is crime control, where personal data is obviously paramount for investigations. The problem is that once courts and judges do not have to give permission, the scope for fishing expeditions is expanded. Unfortunately, little or no information is available on how much new data is sought, why or from whom.

Then there will be security concerns in there, and particularly what is called “national security,” which in my view has been inflated to the status of an obsession, really, in many governments around the world. And I think that obsession is driven by a kind of fear, and also creates further fears about what might be done if information is allowed to be moving freely between institutions, and states and so on.

I think there are a number of different aspects to this, and there’s also plenty of evidence that governments want to affirm their power over the flow of information. The consequence is that simultaneously, governments in different parts of the world are seeing the attempt to tighten screws on the Internet as being part of what they believe they should be about. I do think it’s a crucial area for democracy in general, and for anyone who is concerned about the way in which the Internet is developing.

EFF: On the flip side, if they are successful in getting these things through, how does that impact our civil liberties, and what do we stand to lose?

DL: What do we stand to lose? A lot. It’s exceedingly bad news. The kinds of limitations on freedom of speech if these forms of legislation do get through anywhere, they represent a huge curtailing of freedom of speech. Back in the 1980s, one of the leading sociologists in the world, Anthony Giddens, was writing about surveillance. He was arguing, quite before his time, that one of the key ways in which government would try to reinforce its power would be through the control of information. He argued that the likelihood would be that there would be countervailing movements. Free speech movements, as he called them, would grow, as the attempts to harness information for governmental power would increase.

It seems to me that things have come full circle now. Of course we now see the ways in which digital technologies have facilitated a huge growth of information power, but we’re also seeing now essentially what he predicted, the development of those movements relating to civil liberties. And I do think that’s a really important area for us to examine, because the capacity to speak freely about any kinds of matters – personal, religious, political, whatever – the more they’re constrained, the more we have to say that liberties are being constrained, democracy is being threatened. There are serious questions to ask about the sincerity of governments that claim to be democratic. My interest is analytical, in terms of trying to understand what is going on, but in terms of the big picture, I certainly think that we cannot evade the ethical and political questions as we contemplate those egregious forms of legislation.

EFF: CCTV cameras are near-constant presence at this point. How does this security infrastructure affect our privacy and impact our experience of being in public space?

DL: There is a rapidly growing awareness of the ways in which camera surveillance has come to be a taken-for-granted presence. London, England still has a higher density of surveillance cameras than anywhere in the world, but it’s rapidly being caught up by a number of Chinese cities, and Rio de Janeiro is hugely increasing its camera population, especially with the Rio Olympics coming up. This is something that’s increasingly experienced around the world, in very poor countries as well as very rich ones, and it is something that’s becoming part of the global human experience. Many people believe that the presence of cameras is overall making them more secure. But there’s a key conundrum in the world of camera surveillance. It continues to expand … despite the fact that there is no study in the world that has shown conclusively that camera surveillance operates effectively for the purposes, and in the manner, that it is generally advertised and understood to operate.

The only thing that can be claimed for them is that in some circumstances, assuming that everything else is working … it might be useful for forensic purposes after the event. If they are camera systems that have human operators, then it’s frequently the case that those operators are working with forms of categorization of those that they watch that are deeply prejudicial. There’s plenty of evidence that your likelihood of being apprehended because you have been seen in a camera surveillance system is much higher if you are a young black male, especially in an American city like Chicago. The question of disproportionate gaze on certain groups of the population is a really important question, and something that is clearly related to social justice issues.

The trend is toward trying to find new and better ways of identifying the images that are captured … there’s a lot of faith invested in facial recognition technologies, for example, but again there’s  a huge critical literature – technical and social scientific – that’s asking questions about how reliable those recognition technologies could possibly be. There are many, many questions that one needs to ask about camera surveillance.

EFF: Why should we be concerned about the use of biometric identification systems?

DL: The good old fingerprint is still really the biometric of choice … it lends itself to digitization, and it is far cheaper to operate than technologies like iris scanners or facial recognition. But the more spectacular forms of security, like in airports, tend to be the ones that are captured by mass media, body scanners for example. Once again, there are many questions right from enrollment, that is to say, getting that initial data from the body, whatever it is, through to the reliability of the software for comparison and checking. There are strict limits to what can actually be done using biometric technologies, and there are many possibilities for failure.

As with the camera surveillance, there are also frequently negative discriminatory aspects within biometric systems. There are people with very damaged fingers, or fingers that don’t yield the kinds of prints that are very helpful. It’s also the case that certain groups within the population just have different kinds of features for biometric purposes. … An argument was made by Joseph Pugilese, an Australian researcher showing how biometric technologies are developed in the first place. As he put it, systems he researched could be said to be “calibrated to whiteness.” Other studies show that in a sense that biometrics has been developed by white people in North America – and the norm has been established against which other body types, body groups, may present less usable data for biometric systems. So, right in the technology there are at least questions that need to be asked about how reliable this is for the very mixed populations you might find going through an airport.

EFF: You’re about to come out with a book called “Liquid Surveillance.” Why is it useful to think about contemporary surveillance as being fluid instead of fixed?

DL: Obviously we’re in the world of metaphors here, but I think fluidity as opposed to fixity is a really helpful way of looking at things. The book is done jointly – it’s a conversation between me and Zygmunt Bauman, who’s written a lot about liquid modernity. And he’s examining it in terms of the ways in which, once upon a time, surveillance could be thought of as within enclosed spaces. There were specific institutions where you could expect to be under surveillance … for example, you wouldn’t normally anticipate that the interests your employer might have in the speed and productivity in your work could be transferred to another domain, like welfare or policing or national security.

Neoliberalism encourages the marketization of everything, and therefore the consumer-oriented data gathering and processing enables a whole series of other areas to develop. The other obvious feature of neoliberalism is at the same time as saying everything should be freed up for market activities, the development of national security programs are a very important part of a military budget and a military approach. So governments, while they say they are freeing things up for the market, are actually ensuring that the market deals increasingly with military hardware and software. And that includes a whole panoply of surveillance technologies.

You’ll probably recall that after 9/11, what was to become the Department of Homeland Security went first not to the CIA, or the NSA, or any other such organization. They went first to CRM or customer relationship management. Why? Because they believed that the kinds of techniques that were being developed for locating customers for targeted advertising were exactly the kinds of methods that could be adapted for identifying and locating likely terrorists.

EFF: Freedom not Fear is a form of popular resistance to encroaching surveillance in our world. Do you think public opposition and popular resistance can have an effect on this trend?

DL: The short answer is yes. I do think there are important ways in which modes of question and critique and resistance can have a decisive effect on what happens. And just as an ordinary citizen, I applaud the efforts of those who attempt to raise significant and important questions about what’s going on in the world of surveillance. I’ve never been a proponent of paranoia, I’ve never applauded kneejerk responses to forms of surveillance, whether originating in government or corporate areas, because it seems to me that we’ve created a world where surveillance has become kind of necessary to everyday life. The question is, at what point is it being applied inappropriately, or negatively for some groups, or in a way that is prejudicial to human flourishing in some way or another? To take an example from Canada … Open Media launched a very effective campaign against the lawful access provisions. We had the largest Internet petition ever in Canada around this. It seems to me that such activities are worthwhile.

It has proved difficult up till this time to create a critical mass of resistance to surveillance in all its different dimensions – it tends to be much more related to single issues, like the lawful access legislation here in Canada, like the installation of new camera surveillance, like the development of new forms of tracking technology around times of political demonstrations. It tends to be rather specific issues – there’s nothing analogous to the environmental movement, yet. Frankly, I think just from a moral point of view, if something is seriously wrong in our society then we have a responsibility to attempt to assess it appropriately -- no kneejerk responses, no mere paranoia, no mere Big Brother fear – but, we have a responsibility to oppose that which is clearly inappropriate. And surveillance often has negative effects on human flourishing, particularly because through its sorting capacities it tends to reinforce social differences and further disadvantage groups that are already marginalized.