The Surveillance of Society: It’s Not as New as You Might Think…

The question of the surveillance of society with public and private sectors gathering data on individuals, and the use of computer resources and techniques to do so, is in the headlines today more than ever. The profiling of individuals, which was developed especially during social and economic crises or major political changes, means that surveillance methods and techniques for controlling people (by using information taken from them without their knowledge) have permeated society. This has been done in such a way that they have lost all or part of their control over the information concerning them.

Yet surveillance to predict people’s behaviour is not new. The recent book by Armand Mattelart and Andre Vitalis provides a wealth of historical occurrences, some of which have been forgotten. They cover the monitoring of workers through the “worker’s booklet” up to today’s unusually sophisticated techniques for cyber control and surveillance of populations. Today, this surveillance takes place against the backdrop of a society divided between affirming neo-liberal ideas promoting individual freedom and the need to monitor potentially dangerous groups.

Profiling Through History

To profile someone is to collect data which make it possible to draw up a person’s profile. More precisely, that data is used to identify, then analyse his/her actions in order to predict their behaviour, even direct it in the way desired.

In France, on 17 August 1781, in the Ancien Regime, a booklet was introduced that enabled keeping track of workers. This notebook was official (it was signed by a person in authority each time a worker changed bosses) and nominal (stating the name, age, date of birth, profession etc. of the person). It listed the successive masters or supervisors for each craftsman or worker during his tour of France. The worker was expected to present the booklet at every check point, especially to the police, under penalty of being punished for vagrancy. The French Revolution did away with the booklet, but it was reinstated in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, wanted to deal with “worker nomadism” in a society greatly disrupted by revolutionary events. But he also wanted to control their bosses indirectly, mainly for tax reasons. As this document linked each worker with a boss, by precisely identifying the activities of the former, one could know also know about the business of the latter. However, it should be noted that the employer had complete freedom in writing the notes and comments inside, and also kept it as long as the person worked there – which may have made it difficult to change employers.

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