|The September 11 2001 terrorist
attacks on New York and Washington prompted a series of responses
from military retaliation on the country harbouring Osama Bin
Laden to extensive anti-terrorist legislation aimed at domestic
protection. One of the most prominent ongoing reactions is to
enhance surveillance operations on a number of fronts and there
has been no lack of proposals concerning the best way to achieve
this. Public money is being poured into policing and security
services, and high-tech companies are falling over themselves
to offer not just 'heartfelt condolences' for the attack victims
but technical fixes to prevent such attacks from happening again.
Sociologically, this raises many important and urgent questions.
With surveillance, as in many other areas, it is frequently
suggested that 'everything has changed', an idea that is bound
to stir the hairs on the back of any sociologist's neck. This
sometimes reduces to a list of new gizmos on the everyday
landscape, like iris scanners at airports, closed circuit
television (CCTV) cameras on downtown streets and squares,
and so on, or it can refer to a 'new era' of political control
that overrides previous legal restrictions on monitoring citizens.
So, has everything changed, or not? I shall argue that the
answer is yes and no. The underlying continuities in surveillance
are at least as significant as the altered circumstances following
Focussing on the aftermath of September 11 is a worthwhile
reminder that big events do make a difference in the social
world. As Philip Abrams wisely said, an event ' is a portentous
outcome; it is a transformation device between past and future;
it has eventuated from the past and signifies for the future'.
To see events -- and what I examine here, their aftermath
-- as sociologically important rescues our experiences in
time from being merely moments in a meaningless flux. But
the event is also, says Abrams, an 'indispensable prism through
which social structure and process may be seen'.
To take a notorious example, figures such as Hannah Arendt
and, perhaps more sociologically, Zygmunt Bauman, 
have helpfully viewed the Holocaust as revealing not merely
the human capacity for evil but also some of the key traits
of modernity itself. The triumph of meticulous rational organization
is poignantly and perversely seen in the death camp, making
this not just an inexplicable aberration from 'modern civilization'
but one of its products. The reason that this example springs
to mind in the present context is that today's forms and practices
of surveillance, too, are products of modernity, and thus
carry a similar ambivalence.
So what aspects of social structure and process may be seen
through the prism of surveillance responses to September 11?
I suggest that the prism helps to sharpen our focus on two
matters in particular: One, the expanding range of already
existing range of surveillance processes and practices that
circumscribe and help to shape our social existence. Two,
the tendency to rely on technological enhancements to surveillance
systems (even when it is unclear that they work or that they
address the problem they are established to answer). However,
concentrating on these two items is intended only to mitigate
claims that 'everything has changed' in the surveillance realm,
not to suggest that nothing has changed. Indeed, I think it
safe to suggest that the intensity and the centralization
of surveillance in Western countries is increasing dramatically
as a result of September 11.
The visible signs of putative changes in surveillance have
both legal and technical aspects. The USA and several other
countries have passed legislation intended to tighten security,
to give police and intelligence services greater powers, and
to permit faster political responses to terrorist attacks.
In order to make it easier find (and to arrest) people suspected
of terrorism, typically, some limitations on wiretaps have
not only been lifted but also extended to the interception
of e-mail and to Internet clickstream monitoring. In Canada
(where I write) the Communications Security Establishment
will be able to gather intelligence on terrorist groups, probably
using 'profiling' methods to track racial and national origins
as well as travel movements and financial transactions. Several
countries have proposed new national identification card systems,
some involving biometric devices or programmable chips.
Some have questioned how new, while others have questioned
how necessary, are the measures that have been fast-tracked
through the legislative process. Sceptics point to the well-established
UKUSA intelligence gathering agreement, for example, and to
the massive message interception system once known as CARNIVORE,
that already filtered millions of ordinary international e-mail,
fax, and phone messages long before September 11. Debates
have occurred over how long the legal measures will be in
force - the USA has a 'sunset clause' that phases out the
anti-terrorist law after a period of five years - but few
have denied the perceived need for at least some strengthened
legal framework to deal with terrorist threats.
In some respects bound up with legal issues, and in others,
independently, 'technical' responses to September 11 have
also proliferated. High-tech companies, waiting in the wings
for the opportunity to launch their products, saw September
11 providing just the platform they needed. Not surprisingly,
almost all the 'experts' on whom the media call for comment
are representatives of companies. Thus, for instance, Michael
G. Cherkasky, president of a security firm, Kroll, suggested
that 'every American could be given a "smart card"
so, as they go into an airport or anywhere, we know exactly
who they are'. Or in
a celebrated case, Larry Ellison, president of the Silicon
Valley company Oracle, offered the US government free smart
card software for a national ID system.
What a commercial coup that would be! He failed to explain,
of course, what price would be charged for each access to
the Oracle database, or the roll-out price-tag on a national
smart card identifier.
Other technical surveillance-related responses to September
11 include iris-scans at airports -- now installed at Schipol,
Amsterdam, and being implemented elsewhere as well; CCTV cameras
in public places, enhanced if possible with facial recognition
capacities such as the Mandrake system in Newham, south London;
and DNA databanks to store genetic information capable of
identifying known terrorists. Although given their potential
for negative social consequences
there is a lamentable lack of informed sociological comment
on these far-reaching developments, where such analyses are
available they suggest several things. One, these technologies
may be tried but not tested. That is, it is not clear that
they work with the kind of precision that is required and
thus they may not achieve the ends intended. Two, they are
likely to have unintended consequences that include reinforcing
forms of social division and exclusion.
A third and larger dimension of the technological aspect
of surveillance practices is that seeking superior technologies
appears as a primary goal. No matter that the original terrorism
involved reliance on relatively aged technologies - jet aircraft
of a type that have been around for 30 years, sharp knives,
and so on - it is assumed that high-tech solutions are called
for. Moreover, the kinds of technologies sought - iris scans,
face-recognition, smart cards, biometrics, DNA -- rely heavily
on the use of searchable databases, with the aim of anticipating,
pre-empting, preventing acts of terrorism by isolating in
advance potential perpetrators. I shall return to this in
a moment, but here it is merely worth noting that Jacques
Ellul's concept of la technique, a relentless cultural commitment
to technological progress via ever-augmented means seems (despite
his detractors) to be at least relevant. 
So, what do these post-September 11 surveillance developments
mean, sociologically? Before that date, surveillance studies
seemed to be moving away from more conventional concerns with
a bureaucratic understanding of power relations 
that in fact owes as much to George Orwell as to Max Weber.
This puts fairly high premium on seeing surveillance as a
means to centralised power as exemplified in the fictional
figure of Big Brother - the trope that still dominates many
scholarly as well as popular treatments of the theme. Although
some significant studies, especially those located in labour
process arguments about workplace monitoring and supervision,
see surveillance as a class weapon,
this view is often supplemented with a more Foucaldian one
in which the Panopticon plays a part.
Within the latter there is a variety of views, giving rise
to a lively but sporadic debate.
One fault-line lies between those who focus on the 'unseen
observer' in the Panopticon as an antetype of 'invisible'
electronic forms of surveillance, but also of relatively unobtrusive
CCTV systems, and those that focus more on the classificatory
powers of the Panopticon (an idea that is worked out more
fully in relation to Foucault's 'biopower').
The latter perspective has been explored empirically in several
areas, including high-tech policing and commercial database
marketing. While both
aspects of the Panopticon offer some illuminating insights
into contemporary surveillance, the latter has particular
resonance in the present circumstances. In this view, persons
and groups are constantly risk-profiled which in the commercial
sphere rates their social contributions and sorts them into
consumer categories, and in policing and intelligence systems
rates their relative social dangerousness. Responses to September
11 have increased possibilities for 'racial' profiling along
'Arab' lines in particular.
Both the Weberian-Orwellian and the Foucaldian perspectives
depend on a fairly centralized understanding of surveillance.
However, given the technological capacities for dispersal
and decentralization, not to mention globalization, some more
recent studies have suggested that a different model is called
for. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari 
offers some novel directions, suggesting that the growth of
surveillance systems is rhizomic; more like a creeping plant
than a central tree trunk with spreading branches. This has
persuaded some to see surveillance as a looser, more malleable
and flowing set of processes - a 'surveillant assemblage'
- rather than as a centrally controlled and coordinated system.
In the assemblage, surveillance works by abstracting bodies
from places, splitting them into flows to be reassembled as
virtual data-doubles, calling in question once again hierarchies
and centralized power. One important aspect of this is that
the flows of personal and group data percolate through systems
that once were much less porous; much more discrete and watertight.
Thus, following September 11, surveillance data from a myriad
of sources - supermarkets, motels, traffic control points,
credit card transaction records and so on - were used to trace
the activities of the terrorists in the days and hours before
their attacks. The use of searchable databases makes it possible
to use commercial records previously unavailable to police
and intelligence services and thus draws on all manner of
apparently 'innocent' traces.
This brief survey 
of surveillance studies shows how the once-dominant model
of centralized state informational power has been challenged
by sociol-technical developments. The result is newer models
that incorporate the growth of information and communication
technologies in personal and population data processing, and
more networked modes of social organization with their concomitant
flexibility and departmental openness. But is it a mistake
to simply leave the other kinds of explanation behind, as
we move up (?to the next plateau) using something like Wittgenstein's
ladder? Rather than answering this question directly, I shall
simply offer a series of questions that once again allow the
prism of September 11 aftermath to point up aspects of structure
and process that relate in particular to surveillance.
Is surveillance best thought of as centralized power or dispersed
assemblage? The responses to September 11 are a stark reminder
that for all its changing shape since World War Two the nation-state
is still a formidable force, especially when the apparently
rhizomic shoots can still be exploited for very specific purposes
to tap into the data they carry. Though the Big Brother trope
did not in its original incarnation refer to anything outside
the nation-state (such as commercial or Internet surveillance
that is prevalent today) or guess at the extent to which the
'telescreen' would be massively enhanced by developments first
in microelectronics and then in communications and searchable
databases, it would be naive to imagine that Big Brother type
threats are somehow a thing of the past. Draconian measures
are appearing worldwide as country after country instates
laws and practices purportedly to counter terrorism. Panic
responses perhaps, but they are likely to have long-term and
possibly irreversible consequences. The surveillant assemblage
can be coopted for conventional purposes.
With regard to the experience of surveillance it is worth
asking, is intrusion or exclusion is the key motif? In societies
that have undergone processes of steady privatization it is
not surprising that surveillance is often viewed in individualistic
terms as a potential threat to privacy, an intrusion on an
intimate life, an invasion of the sacrosanct home, or as jeopardising
anonymity. While all these are understandable responses (and
ones that invite their own theoretical responses), none really
touches one of the key aspects of contemporary surveillance;
The increasingly automated discriminatory mechanisms for
risk profiling and social categorizing represent a key means
of reproducing and reinforcing social, economic, and cultural
divisions in informational societies. They tend to be highly
unaccountable - especially in contexts such as CCTV surveillance
 - which is why the
common promotional refrain, 'if you have nothing to hide,
you have nothing to fear' is vacuous. Categorical suspicion
 has consequences
for anyone, 'innocent' or 'guilty', caught in its gaze, a
fact that has poignant implications for the new anti-terror
measures enacted after September 11.
The experience of surveillance also raises the question of
how far subjects collude with, negotiate, or resist practices
that capture and process their personal data? Surveillance
is not merely a matter of the gaze of the powerful, any more
than it is technologically determined. Data-subjects interact
with surveillance systems. As Foucault says, we are 'bearers
of our own surveillance' but it must be stressed that this
is not merely an unconscious process in which we are dupes.
Because surveillance is always ambiguous - there are genuine
benefits and plausible rationales as well as palpable disadvantages
- the degree of collaboration with surveillance depends on
a range of circumstances and attitudes. Under the present
panic regime (towards the close of 2001) it appears that anxious
publics are willing to put up with many more intrusions, interceptions,
delays, and questions than was the case before September 11,
and this process is amplified by media polarizations of the
'choice' between 'liberty' and 'security'. 
The consequences of this complacency could be far-reaching.
I have mentioned technological aspects of surveillance several
times, which points up the question, are these developments
technologically or socially driven? To read some accounts
- both positive and negative -- one would imagine that 'technology'
really has the last word in determining surveillance capacities.
But this is fact a fine site in which to observe the co-construction
of the technical and the social. 
For example, though very powerful searchable databases are
in use, and those in intelligence and policing services are
being upgraded after September 11, the all-important categories
with which they are coded 
are produced by much more mundane processes. Databases marketers
in the USA use crude behavioural categories to describe neighbourhoods,
such as 'pools and patios' or 'bohemian mix', and CCTV operators
in the UK target disproportionately the 'young, black, male'
group. The high-tech glitz seems to eclipse by its dazzle
those social factors that are constitutionally imbricated
with the technical.
Still on the technical, however, a final question would be,
are the proposed new anti-terrorist measures pre-emptive or
investigatory? Over the past few years an important debate
has centred on the apparent switch in time from past-oriented
to future-oriented surveillance. Gary T. Marx predicted in
the late 1980s  that
surveillance would become more pre-emptive and in many respects
he has been vindicated. This idea has been picked up in a
more Baudrillardian vein by William Bogard who argues that
surveillance is increasingly simulated, such that seeing-in-advance
is its goal.
However, this kind of argument easily loses sight of actual
data-subjects - persons - whose daily life chances and choices
are affected in reality by surveillance.
But a parallel assumption, in policy circles, is that new
technologies will be able to prevent future terrorist acts.
It would be nice to believe this - and as one who was in mid-flight
over North America at the time of the attacks I would love
to think it true! - but the overwhelming evidence points in
the other direction. Surveillance can only anticipate up to
a point, and in some very limited circumstances. Searchable
databases and international communications interception were
fully operational on September 10 to no avail.
Surveillance responses to September 11 are indeed a prism
through which aspects of social structure and process may
be observed. The prism helps to make visible the already existing
vast range of surveillance practices and processes that touch
everyday life in so-called informational societies. And it
helps to check various easily made assumptions about surveillance
- that it is more dispersed than centralised, that it is more
intrusive than exclusionary, that data-subjects are dupes
of the system, that it is technically-driven, that it contributes
more to prevention than to investigation after the fact.
Sociologically, caution seems to be called for in seeing
older, modernist models simply as superseded by newer, postmodern
ones. For all its apparent weaknesses in a globalizing world,
the nation-state is capable of quickly tightening its grip
on internal control, using means that include the very items
of commercial surveillance -- phone calls, supermarket visits,
and Internet surfing -- that appear 'soft' and scarcely worthy
of inclusion as 'surveillance'. And for all the doubts cast
on the risk-prone informational, communications, and transport
environment, faith in the promise of technology seems undented
by the 'failures' of September 11. Lastly, in the current
climate it is hard to see how calls for democratic accountability
and ethical scrutiny of surveillance systems will be heard
as anything but liberal whining. The sociology of surveillance
discussed above suggests that this is a serious mistake, with
ramifications we may all live to regret.
November 12, 2001
Notes and References
This may be seen on many web sites, e.g. www.viisage.com
Philip Abrams, Historical Sociology (Shepton Mallet UK: Open
Books, 1982) p.191.
Abrams, p. 192.
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, (Oxford and Malden
MA: Blackwell, 1987).
The USA's PATRIOT Act was first, in October 2001, followed
quickly by similar legislation in the UK and Canada (the Anti-terrorism
Bill C-36; not yet law at the time of writing). Other countries
had second thoughts on legislation as a result of September
11. In Germany, the draft of a new, more liberal immigration
law was scrapped at the same time as laws regulating freedom
of movement and requiring fingerprints in identity cards were
tightened. See www.nytimes.com/2001/10/01/international/europe/01GERM.html
See e.g. the debate over iris scans at airports, prompted
by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) but extending
much more broadly as well. www.aclu.org/features/f110101a.html
Knowledge of Ellul's work is often limited only to the allegedly
deterministic The Technological Society (New York: Vintage,
1964). But he saw his sociological work as integrated with
his more theological writings that are anything but deterministic.
It is misleading to see his most famous work out of the context
of the whole corpus.
See e.g. Christopher Dandeker, Surveillance Power and Modernity,
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).
The work of Harry Braverman is the classic in this regard.
See Labour and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review
See e.g. Roy Boyne, Post-Panopticism, Economy and Society,
29(2) 2000: 285-307
Part of the difficulty is that although the idea of biopower
exists in Discipline and Punish, it is much more clearly evident
in The History of Sexuality
Oscar Gandy, The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal
Information, (Boulder CO: Westview, 1993); Richard Ericson
and Kevin Haggerty, Policing the Risk Society, (Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1997).
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
See e.g. Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson, The surveillant
assemblage, British Journal of Sociology, 51(4) 2000: 506-622.
A longer survey appears in David Lyon, Surveillance Society:
Monitoring Everyday Life, (Buckingham: Open University Press,
See David Lyon (ed.) Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy,
Risk, and Automated Discrimination, (London and New York:
Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance
Society: CCTV in Britain, (London: Berg, 1999).
This elegant concept was first used by Gary T. Marx in Undercover:
Police Surveillance in America (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1988). I discuss its commercial equivalent, 'categorical
seduction' in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance
Society, (Cambridge: Polity Press and Malden MA: Blackwell,
I experienced this, anecdotally, when an op-ed piece I wrote
under the title 'Whither surveillance after bloody Tuesday?'
was published in the newspaper as 'What price in liberty will
we pay for security?' The Kingston Whig-Standard, September
See David Lyon 'Surveillance technology and surveillance society,
in Tom Misa, Philip Brey and Andrew Feenberg (eds.) Modernity
and Technology, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, forthcoming 2002)
See the influential work by Lawrence Lessig, Code, and Other
Laws of Cyberspace, (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
See note 20.
William Bogard, The Simulation of Surveillance, Cambridge
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
See e.g. Stephen Graham, 'Spaces of Surveillant Simulation'