Surveillance and democratic debate

Letters to #Ammerica is a weekly letter “sent” from Europe to the US in the aftermaths of November 8, 2016. It’s a personal take, based on my research experience in the South of US and Southern Europe, on cities, their policies, politics and institutional systems. Because the making of (urban) America shapes the making of Europe and beyond; and we are all involved.


The last week, I have discussed the need to understand the ways recent policies about security are affecting the space for public participation in the city and affecting the capacity of politics to bring about democratic discussion. In this post, I will exemplify these trends, discussing one of the most omnipresent forms of such policies, the surveillance over, and beyond, the urban space. (This post is largely based on a section of Chapter 4 of my book Fear, Space and Urban Planning).

The most basic form of surveillance in the urban space, CCTV cameras, has nowadays become an “obvious” system used by “every self-respecting town”. In the US, the use of CCTV cameras is particularly advanced, and there is virtually no city (or town) without a system of sort. In some cases, like Memphis, CCTV cameras (equipped with automatic plate recognition software) are part of systems that use complex algorithms in order to allegedly anticipate where crimes may happen to prevent them (I will discuss Memphis’ BlueCRUSH in a future post). Urban CCTV systems were being developed since the 1980s, but it is in the wake of September 11, 2001, and in name of the “war on terror”, that they have exponentially grew.

Surveillance in Palermo

Surveillance in Palermo

Commonsense as it may sound, surveillance over the city is a deeply problematic problem, one that would deserve much political discussion. I will limit the discussion to two dimensions: first, the threats to democratic life that surveillance entail; and, second, the dimension of “simulation” of surveillance (and the problems which stem).

Surveillance, individual and collective rights

The main argument of advocates of surveillance is that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. In other word, “good” citizens should not be worried by surveillance, which is against “bad” citizens. And yet the problem is what we define as good/bad and who makes such definition. On the one hand, there are evidences that, even in our democratic system, surveillance deeply affect the life of “good” citizens. For instance, surveillance renders the life of homeless people increasingly hard. Or, since surveillance has become an instrument to “brand” public spaces, areas without surveillance tend to be marginalized – in Memphis, for instance, surveillance was installed in areas, the touristic and wealthy ones, that were already safe. In general, the very presence of CCTV cameras, and security devices in general, tend to affect practices of “active citizenship” like protests, which are central to democratic life. On the other hand, a system that may have relatively limited effects under democracy, would become a powerful weapon if a sudden system change happen (this should concern us particularly in times of growth of right-wing populisms).

Despite the best intentions that may be at the core of the political decision to use CCTVs, there are few doubts of the fact that surveillance affects both individual rights (particularly of people belonging to less powerful groups) and the collective rights to an open democratic process.

Then, the second argument of advocates of surveillance is: “security is necessary to liberty; CCTVs foster security, hence they foster liberty”. However, as far as surveillance is concerned, there is reason to doubt that this is the case; and surveillance seem to be simulation more (rather?) than security.

Surveillance and simulation

Is surveillance worth it? Does it improve security after all? In general, it’s quite hard to tell: securing means preventing, and effective “prevention” means that something will not happen – if something does not come to pass, there may be a number of reasons for it and you can’t study that very event, which didn’t happen. With CCTV, however, there is a number of ways to evaluate, although not definitely measure, the capacity to “prevent”, hence secure. Without getting into the technicalities of researches on CCTV effectiveness, suffice to say that the most complete studies so far, have found little or no evidence of preventive capacity overall (e.g. Urbaneye project or SCAN Network). Cameras seem quite effective in preventing some type of thefts, like car thefts in public parking, but not most concerning crimes such as violent crime or, obviously, environmental and state crime, which happen where the gaze of cameras does not get.

Indeed, cameras help in apprehending (some types of) criminals; but given the scarce, if any, effect of the penal system in deterring crime (evidence of this is massive) this is not a means to “prevent”, hence to increase security and safety. Playing with words, it is safe to say that cameras does not make us safer. So why installing them? To reassure the population? Or, better, to reassure some portions of the population (the wealthy, the powerful)?

It seems to me that cameras, like many other security devices, are an instrument useful to “simulate”, more than produce, security. Security is a complex goal, which entails much more than police and technical instruments: securing means creating a society where there are less reasons to commit crime and violence, which is a hard and long path. CCTVs, on the contrary, offer apparently “easy” solutions, and “objective” ones (the gaze of the camera, the pundits say, is not biased as the gaze of the human).

Let me use an example from airport security to emphasize the paradoxes of simulation, something we all experienced without noticing. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, travelers have not been allowed to bring small knives, scissors or razors in hand baggage. However, such measures do not apply to the traveler-consumer: once having passed security checks, everyone can buy drinks and alcohol in glass bottles that, when broken, can become weapons much more dangerous than nail files. Is the ban of small metallic items useful to increase security or, rather, to reassure passengers? I guess the question need remaining open, but I hope it stimulates thinking.

In conclusion: in need of sustained political discussion

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for a total elimination of technological (and human) devices of surveillance. For instance, x-rays dramatically improve airport security and there are not big reasons to be concerned by making a line at security checks – the problem, in this case, is when human guards or more advanced technological systems “profile” the passenger based on ethnicity or gender. As far as CCTVs are concerned, there are reasons to believe that urban cameras nowadays affect the “good” citizen much more than the “bad” one – in spite of what pundits say.

My point is: we need an open, and political, discussion about what the realistic goals for security are and what policies and instruments (including technology) are useful, necessary and adequate. We need to accept that total security is not a possible output (while total surveillance could theoretically happen) and remember that we already live in the safest societies in the history of mankind.

The problem is that such a discussion has been basically not allowed during the last few decades, basically everywhere. In the US the trend toward increased surveillance has kept pace under any political government: Bush may have launched the surveillance practices made public by Edward Snowden, but Obama made them bigger and bigger.

Again, can we be surprised by the fact that citizens are starting to look elsewhere to find alternatives to more of the same?


Informazioni su Simone Tulumello

Post-doc researcher in Planning and Geography at ULisboa, Institute of Social Sciences. Keen in cities, (Italian) politics, photography, electronic music, and food. Lover of cities, especially Palermo and Lisbon, in a complicated relationship with Memphis TN.
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