Questioning the Culture of Surveillance Sociologist William Staples on the 'Tiny Brothers' That Watch Us
Questioning the Culture of Surveillance
Prof. William Staples, author of the book "Everyday Surveillance"

While news of the NSA's data collection caught many off guard (see Judge Upholds NSA Surveillance Program), it's just another example of the U.S. culture of surveillance, says sociologist William Staples.

"It's just the way we live," says Staples, a University of Kansas professor and author of the book, "Everyday Surveillance," the second edition of which has just been released. "I would argue that our culture of surveillance is founded on fear and suspicion," he says in an interview with Information Security Media Group [transcript below].

Staples calls the extent to which the government monitors its citizens an "over-reaction."

"Just because we have the means, it seems like we do it," he says. "We've been turning to all the means at our disposal to thwart what we perceive as kind of rampant deviance, crime and problematic behavior."

The NSA incident should be a wake-up call regarding the extent to which the government conducts surveillance activities, Staples says.

"Is this the kind of society we want to live in where we're constantly assessed, judged and monitored every day of our lives?" he says. "If everybody is okay with that, then fine. But maybe we need some kind of restriction on some of it; at least put some kind of check on it."

In the interview, Staples discusses:

  • The "tiny brothers" that monitor our electronic movements;
  • The potential ramifications of constant surveillance;
  • How individuals and organizations should approach questions about monitoring and data collection.

Professor Staples is the 2013 E. Jackson Baur Professor and founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. He has interests in social control, privacy and historical sociology. His recent books include "The Encyclopedia of Privacy" (2006), "Power, Profits, and Patriarchy: The Social Organization of Work at a British Metal Trades Firm, 1791-1922" (2001), and "Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life," which has just been released in a new edition.

Surveillance Research

TOM FIELD: To start with, take a minute and tell us a bit about yourself and your research please.

WILLIAM STAPLES: I've been at the University of Kansas for 24 years, and I've been studying surveillance for about 20 of those. The book is actually a second edition of a book by the same title that I published in 2000. I just founded the Surveillance Studies Research Center here at the University of Kansas. My research has been focused mainly on this idea that I came up with in the late 90s. I got interested in the notion of surveillance. I looked around, and Big Brother wasn't around much. What I was seeing was more of these little, tiny ways in which people are monitored. It's become kind of my contribution, if you will, to an interdisciplinary field called surveillance studies.

NSA Revelations

FIELD: One of the things that struck me in learning about your research is that the recent revelations about NSA surveillance really come as no surprise to you. Why is that?

STAPLES: For anybody who has been keeping track of what has been happening in surveillance both nationally and otherwise, we knew post-9/11 that it was going to be intensive surveillance. EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, sued the NSA for similar kinds of programs as early as 1999, and there was much debate. If you look at newspaper coverage from 2005, there was lots of coverage of some of these programs. The Snowden leaks revealed much more detail than most people knew about.

In terms of the response to it, the public clearly wasn't following what was going on. I think all the handwringing in Congress about it is kind of silly because they authorized it multiple times. They rely on the information that comes from it, and the President relies on it every single morning. Apparently, something like 50 percent of his briefings is data that comes from the NSA.

Culture of Surveillance

FIELD: At the start of this conversation, I used the term "culture of surveillance." Would you define for us what you mean when you refer to the U.S. as cultivating this culture of surveillance?

STAPLES: The culture of surveillance is a term I started using a number of years ago that refers to culture as a way of life. The culture is something that's not all that well-defined, but it's just the way we live. I would argue that our culture of surveillance is founded on fear and suspicion. Post-9/11 is important in terms of the issue of terrorism and other things, but I think it goes all the way down to the level of people's houses, being suspicious of your kids, drugs, etc. It seems like we've been turning to all the means at our disposal to thwart what we perceive as kind of rampant deviance, crime and problematic behavior. It's not that those things aren't real; it's the extent to which they are. I see our culture of surveillance as partly a kind of over-reaction. Just because we have the means, it seems like we do it. It's widespread. It doesn't just target the folks that are causing problems. It's everybody gets drug tested, everybody gets treated in certain ways, rather than narrowly.

Tiny Brothers

FIELD: In your book, "Everyday Surveillance," you refer to the concept of tiny brothers. What are they exactly and do they add up to the impact of a single Big Brother?

STAPLES: "Tiny brothers" was another phrase that I tried to capture. When I wrote the book initially, it was pre 9/11 and, like I said earlier, Big Brother wasn't really around very much. We knew that there was stuff going on, but it wasn't in the consciousness and it was kind of hard to understand what Big Brother really meant. But as I said, I started looking around our daily lives, in institutions and organizations like workplaces, schools and communities, and I just saw more and more of these technological ways of keeping track of people.

A phrase I use sometimes is data sponges. They're everything from electronic car keys that you open doors with to toll-booth recorders. If you think about your daily life - and I've done this several times with classes that I teach - all the students figure out what kinds of tiny brothers they encounter on a daily basis, and it's extraordinary. I had students go the other day through our student union and they found 28 different data sponges, if you will, in the student union, everything from surveillance cameras to ATMs with cameras and scanners; even their student cards are RFID chips that can store all kinds of information. To say nothing about the cell phones that they carry around and the like, it added up. It was just an enormous amount of this data sponging and storing all those kinds of information about it. It's not ... because they're small, but it's also that they're not necessarily public as in big brother. They're by and large private companies and other kinds of organizations that are collecting all this information about us.

FIELD: I hear what you're describing, and it strikes me that many of these instances of tiny brothers are implemented for security, for authentication. Are tiny brothers necessarily a bad thing?

STAPLES: No, not at all. They're in many instances reasonable responses to certain kinds of problems. But again, I think there's a tendency to overreact to various things and we don't generally build in as many protections as we could. We sort of let these things go rampant, and the question is, "Is that the society we want to live in?" That's the kind of thing that I'm trying to raise questions about.

Comparing U.S.'s Surveillance Culture

FIELD: As you say, this is an area that you've researched now for over 20 years. How do you find that this U.S. culture of surveillance is unique in the world? If so, what are the potential ramifications?

STAPLES: The U.S. seems to be one of the leaders in this kind of attitude. Again, it's a culture that's generated by fear, and it's kind of spread by the media, and [it's] the kind of media that we have today that everyone is on edge because they think that they're going to be the next victim of something, even though it might be an incredibly rare thing.

My colleagues around the world say that there are definitely surveillance mentalities and things going on. I mean, look at the United Kingdom. In the UK, there's a surveillance camera for every 32 people. But at the same time, the European Union has a data protection law that seems to at least try to go after some of this or tamp down some of the extremes of what we know is the potential abuse of large data collection efforts. We're the leader in all kinds of ways and I think we've tended to spread our culture of surveillance to the world, sometimes directly by providing resources to countries to build security networks and those kinds of things.

Generation of Compliance

FIELD: One of the things that we see in this age of social media and mobile ubiquity is that we're cultivating a generation that doesn't have a lot of concern about data security and privacy. Do you find that we're cultivating a generation that's going to simply expect and comply with surveillance?

STAPLES: Yeah I think so. There's some blowback from students that are a little bit savvier. ... From some of them that I hear [from], they're reacting to this and shutting down their Facebook pages, accounts and that kind of thing. But I think my experience over the last 10-15 years talking to different groups is that students have had this acceptance attitude. They've grown up in a culture of surveillance. When you do that, you expect it; you take it for granted that it's going to be there.

But at the same time, another aspect of our culture of surveillance is the way that we contribute to it. Again, it's not a Big Brother thing, it's that we're part and parcel on it, and we feed the machines our information routinely. Americans carry on about protection of privacy, yet we're always handing it away it seems. I think young people have this tendency. One of the ways I thought about it for a long time - and I think this is true - is that they see themselves, particularly in the realm of surveillance, as consumers in culture rather than citizens. When I talk to groups, generally older people over 45, [they] react from this kind of citizenly way and I think the students tend to have this attitude [that] if they just get it with products more efficiently, than that's good. I think there's a kind of complacency among them.

FIELD: How has your research into surveillance influenced your own behavior?

STAPLES: I'm certainly cognizant of these issues, clearly, and I do what I can to try to avoid them. But individuals can only do so much. ... I'm not saying that this is all bad. ... My goal is to understand. My goal as a sociologist is not to tell people what to do, but to have questions about various aspects of social life that most take for granted. To look for patterns of social life, I use theories and other ideas to try to make sense out of it. If you want to talk about what we do about it, I think we need collective, large-scale responses and we need to decide, as a society, is this the kind of society we want to live in where we're constantly assessed, judged and monitored every day of our lives. If everybody is okay with that, then fine, but maybe we need some kind of restriction on some of it; at least put some kind of check on it.

Questions for Organizations

FIELD: As you say, you're a sociologist, so it really isn't fair of me to ask you for specific recommendations. But let me ask this: Based on your research, what are some of the questions that organizations ought to be asking of themselves?

STAPLES: Take a workplace. You have employees. If you treat them with constant suspicion, the idea that they're going to steal from you or whatever, there's a lack of a common goal. [It's] ... having a hard time keeping employees because you subject them to anything from drug tests, you monitor everything they do on a computer, or you have them carrying around a tablet that keeps track of every single thing that they do. Is that real efficiency? It seems to be the value, if I'm talking mainly about the workplace. It's a competitive economy, but maybe business owners should think about what that does to their employees. It's those kinds of questions I would raise. If you look at every institution in a society, schools are turning into virtual prisons with metal detectors, drug testing and drug-sniffing dogs, you name it. Is that an appropriate institution to call a school that operates in those ways?

FIELD: We're talking about the newly revised book, "Everyday Surveillance," by Professor William Staples. Professor, where can our audience members find copies of your book?

STAPLES: It's published by Rowman & Littlefield. You can go to their website and get it, or you can go to various web vendors like Amazon and the like. It's out there. There's an e-book version of it. It's pretty inexpensive.

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