Editorial: The powers that see

While surveillance may feel vast, looming and obscure, writes Michelle Zellers, it isn’t separate from the other battles we’re fighting

November 16, 2013
5 min read


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.

Zygmunt Bauman has explained ‘power’ as ‘the way to manipulate probabilities to increase the likelihood of desirable conduct’. If the ‘powers that see’ are to tweak our behaviour – charting the chances that we’ll believe a particular lie, or purchase a particular brand of corporate injustice to pour on our breakfast cereal – then surely they’ll need data. The entirety of our phone and email records is a good starting point.

From Edward Snowden’s revelations, surveillance appears to be expanding without meaningful limits. Such a pattern jives with what information activist groups have pieced together through years of research, thwarted information requests and occasional leaks from insiders. The scope of data captured from our network communications is staggering, as discussed in our surveillance focus this issue. In addition to getting swept up in the arm of ‘metadata’, UK activists may be handpicked for tracking by secret police, who’ve compiled as many as 9,000 individual profiles on campaigners, explains Kevin Blowe.

While surveillance may feel vast, looming and obscure, it isn’t separate from the other battles we’re fighting. We need to examine the myriad ways the oppressed have been watched and controlled throughout history so we can integrate the fight against surveillance into our existing struggles. Discrimination under the guise of ‘security’ has long been a concern for racial justice activists, who have observed how black and brown communities are targeted for extra monitoring and often violent treatment at the hands of police. As surveillance winds itself even more tightly around other pillars of injustice, from war to wage labour, more of us need to look the issue in the eye.

In a Q&A in this issue, peace activist Medea Benjamin discusses the use of drone technology for both surveillance and international assassinations. Ewa Jasiewicz highlights surveillance as a workers’ issue, speaking to trade unionists who were monitored and blacklisted by construction companies. Anna Minton and Jody Aked explore how a multi‑billion pound industry meets economic deprivation at sites of ‘high security’ social housing. And Elia Zureik traces surveillance through colonial history, from fingerprinting during the British occupation of India to biometrics at modern borders.

Last year, students at Newcastle University fought the planned installation of fingerprint scanners in lecture halls to monitor attendance. The motivation was keeping tabs on international students, reporting their whereabouts to the UK Border Agency. The resistance that emerged brought together students against xenophobia, students concerned with their privacy rights and students interested in defending the university as a public good. Faced with head-spinning webs of injustice like this one, too many of us to count have a vested interest in uniting against surveillance.

Coming together requires that we build trust: the radical antidote to a divisive, fear-mongering ‘security’ state. It requires that we get personal, recognising that surveillance operates not just above us but through us. Being under constant watch insults our dignity, leads us to keep our most important perceptions hidden, makes us suspicious of others, disintegrates the social fabric of which we are a part.

Are there things you wouldn’t talk about in front of your boss? We generally accept that it’s pragmatic to ‘watch what we say’ in the presence of people who have power over us – and could change our lives with a single decision. But where is the unwatched space, where people with power over our lives can’t follow? Personally, I would have to steer clear of my computer, everywhere I use my debit card, and the entire length of the streets just outside my flat, which are lined with cameras. I’m tempted to profess I have nothing to hide, but I won’t.

Instead I’ll reiterate that I don’t consent to being watched by the same powers that are hell-bent on denying me equality and destroying our planet. Indeed, none of us consent to this. It is not possible to say ‘yes’ when we’re not given the choice of ‘maybe’, ‘wait a second’, or ‘no’ – even in these countries we call democracies.

What inventive, subversive, explosive, transcendent possibilities won’t we dream about out loud, when we know our trusted listeners aren’t the only ones listening?

Following the Snowden revelations, many commentators of many different political persuasions were quick to declare the leaked information ‘unsurprising’. In these times, when patriarchy, war, racism and other forms of abuse march on – finding newer, sharper tools to replace their bayonets – it’s not the ‘surprise factor’ that matters. It’s the imagination factor that will lead us out of a world that has been divided, enclosed, padlocked and ‘secured’ so many times over. It’s the solidarity factor that helps us remember we have something in common with the people outside our walls. It’s the courage within us that fades, but crops back up: never easy to predict, let alone intercept.


Michelle Zellers is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. Based in Newcastle, she also works for a student union.


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