Surveillance methods can heighten fears and divisions

Terrorist threats such as the failed bombing attempt in Times Square inevitably lead to calls for increased surveillance. Yet, instead of preventing threats, heightened security measures can widen divisions among people and lead to hidden social sorting, according to a new book by a
Peabody College professor.

“When you amplify surveillance, it tends to increase suspicions and that increases fear, and that makes people want even more surveillance. It’s a self-destructive loop,” said Torin Monahan, author of Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity (Rutgers, 2010).

During the massive media coverage following the Times Square bomb attempt, it was days before the point was made that video surveillance is more effective at apprehending suspects after the fact and is seldom effective in deterring crime, Monahan said.

Ultimately, technical mistakes on the part of the bomber thwarted the attack rather than security measures.

Surveillance might actually be counter-productive.”[rquote]It may be that by using video surveillance, we’re creating a false sense of security[/rquote],” he said.

Another failed bombing attempt – on Christmas Day aboard an aircraft over Detroit – raised calls for the use of full body scanners in airports.”Those are incredibly inefficient and costly. If you screened every single passenger, it would slow down the system so severely it would likely have serious implications for air travel,” Monahan said.

“There is a belief in technological fixes. But the problem in this case was not a failure of technology. The problem was a failure of intelligence,” Monahan said. The suspect’s own family in the Christmas Day bombing had identified his behavior as suspicious to authorities.

Monahan, associate professor of human and organizational development, said his book urges readers to examine the root causes of insecurity rather than the responses engendered by fear.”By investing in security technologies, we may be aggravating societal problems, creating more divisions and increasing fear of people outside of the gates or beyond our borders,” he said.

The fear culture that leads to more surveillance is fraught with problems: For example, studies have shown that some men monitoring security cameras tend to zero in on women as sexual objects, that welfare agencies may unfairly single out poor, black women for surveillance and that surveillance cameras have been used to remove homeless people or other”undesirables” from the street rather than deter crime.

“These are dimensions of social sorting. We remove people who are seen as not belonging,” said Monahan, who also wrote Schools Under Surveillance (Rutgers, 2010).

Abuses occur, in part, because people who operate the technology are masked behind the screens and are therefore less accountable to oversight, he said.

“While surveillance technology doesn’t necessarily lead to prejudicial uses or to profiling or to violations of privacy, it does lend itself to those uses,” he said.

Seemingly minor conveniences created by technology also can lead to social sorting, Monahan posited in the book.

“[lquote]Even the use of automated tolls on highways segments out a population that can afford to get in the fast lane by paying an annual fee[/lquote],” he said. Frequent travelers are separated into quicker lines at airports and in some cases are provided identification cards that allow for speedier travel.

“The sorting is hidden in the technologies,” Monahan said.

Ordinary citizens receive mixed messages about multiple security issues, making the patterns hard to sort out, he said. People are told they should remain vigilant and protect themselves on the one hand and, on the other hand, let the government address outside threats.

“There’s a pattern to increasingly centralize and privatize provisions for national security while decentralizing responsibility for human security,” Monahan said.”There’s one dimension that says we should prepare and protect ourselves and at the same time let the state engage in government spying and pre-emptive wars. It presents a paradox.”

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City spurred Monahan’s academic interest in the subject. He was teaching an information technology policy and law class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., during the attacks, and the class quickly turned its focus to analyzing the country’s response to major catastrophes.

“I became curious about the complexity of our responses. It’s not a simple thing. Lots of decisions are being made behind closed doors,” he said.

In the wake of 9/11, popular books and television shows played on fears and insecurities, creating more problems and divisions. Monahan said that commanders in Iraq expressed concerns to the producers of the television show 24 that field soldiers who were fans of the show were more likely to resort to violent interrogation tactics.

Frequently, the show utilized torture to extract quick information from suspects. Monahan pointed out:”All the experts on interrogation have said that torture doesn’t work. Building rapport works better. But it doesn’t make for a very sexy show.”

People who enjoy the show might not be aware of its influence on real people, just as most people are unaware of the potential ramifications of heightened surveillance and insecurity, both because they have been conditioned to think that surveillance will make them safer and because they believe that surveillance and security technology is essentially”neutral,” Monahan said.

“Our understandings of insecurity often are fueled by the media and lead to responses that aren’t necessarily rational,” he said.”We can be more intelligent in addressing these issues.”

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