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In a society of ubiquitous telecoms surveillance, not having a mobile phone is now suspicious

April 11, 2009

There is a really good article by David Mery in The Register, which provides a nice summary of the current situation regarding the mass surveillance of mobile telecommunications in the EU and the UK specifically.

One particularly interesting point he makes is that the combination of the ubiquity of the mobile phone – there are more phones than people across most of Europe now – with the routine nature of mass state surveillance of telecommunications traffic and mobile phone location, means that not carrying a mobile phone is now grounds for suspicions. One item in the ridiculous German anti-terrorism case against the academic, Andrej Holm, was “the fact that he – allegedly intentionally – did not take his mobile phone with him to a meeting is considered as ‘conspiratorial behavior.'” In te similarly ridiculous arrest of a load of back-to-the-land communards at Tarnac in France, their lack of mobile phones was also considered to be suspicious and evidence of ‘clandestinity.’

This is a key indication of living in a ubiquitous surveillance society – when the norms of surveillance practice start to be seen by the state (or indeed people) as a more general societal norm, and nonconformity is grounds for suspicion. The surveillance society is a self-referential, self-reinforcing one. Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect (as the current London Met poster campaign also shows). The normalisation of surveillance potentially makes suspicious anything that we do that makes state surveillance of more difficult. It is no longer a case of a passive ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, but that not volunteering to be under surveillance makes us ‘abnormal’.

This seriously affects our civil liberties, but it has the potential to affect something more fundamental too – our autonomy, that is the ability to define ourselves as indviduals. Contemporary surveillance societies have started to impose categorisations and indentifications onto people that have nothing to do with how we feel about our identities. These categorisations not only stand for us in specific negotiations with the state (as they always have done in the past), they appear increasingly designed to erase identity (or even the potential for the self-construction of identity) and replace it with an identificatiton, by reinscribing the state categorisation, derived from surveillance, back onto the person and their behaviour.

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