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.

Control of the workbook, 1851, Delord

The worker’s booklet remained practically unchanged until the middle of the 19th century. It gradually fell into disuse and then disappeared, first because of the Industrial Revolution which resulted in large scale hiring in factories and large displacements of the population, and second, the abolition of the anti-coalition law of 1864 that legalized trade unions. However, towards the end of the 1880s, another method for tracking workers was created: the time clock or punch clock for workers in modern companies, which was intended, officially, “to guarantee the fair calculation of one’s working time.”

CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

The first real police files date to 1810, when the writers of the Napoleon Penal Code defined repressive and preventive means for mass surveillance. These methods largely survived the First Empire and would be used by the monarchical and republican regimes that succeeded one another during the 19th century. These various means stand out particularly for the State’s use of statistics to measure crime, the summary tables giving the state of crime in eighty-six departments of France, and “systems of index or note cards on individuals arranged alphabetically in record books [translated here]” (Mattelart, Vitalis).

From 1885 onwards, techniques were defined to recognize citizens’ identity for security purposes. They were accompanied by discourse pleading for the creation of an individual certificate that would include people’s “anthropometric description.” However, this method of identification never saw the light of day in Western democracies, which dismissed it “in the name of respecting private life and the rights of citizens.” Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that anthropometry, in other words measuring people’s physical characteristics (height, weight, length and circumference of limbs, etc.) was in vogue in France at that time, then in Europe and the United States, particularly in legal situations.

The Paradox of Today’s Democracies: More Freedom and More Control

After the Second World War two different perspectives emerged. First, under the effects of the Cold War, polarization occurred with the creation of the Eastern Block and the West, dominated respectively by the USSR and the USA. In the West, the United States was the first to develop a military-industrial complex. One of its later consequences was the creation of increasingly perfected information and telecommunication systems that would lay the foundations for massive surveillance policies. It was also in this context that certain initiatives were created to bring the social sciences and humanities together with “defence interests” (see for example the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), although these projects are not very well-known today.

In Western Europe, even though the Welfare State was presented as a social and economic democratic project, the question of national security was also on the agenda because the enemy was both external and internal. In most countries, measures were adopted to reinforce the powers of the State in terms of prevention and coercion. For example, States were equipped with even better means to record information and check people, using computers and new information and communication technologies. There were a great many reactions in society and in France, which led to the creation of the National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties (CNIL), an independent administrative authority charged with protecting personal data.

Then, the Berlin Wall fell and the ideological, geo-economic and geo-political consequences diluted somewhat the demands for national security. Yet they were reactivated a few years later faced with the rise of terrorism globally (11 September 2001 attacks in New York, 11 March 2004 in Madrid, 7 July 2005 in London, etc.) “Security at all costs” was then presented as a necessity in the face of terrorism, the “new global enemy.” According to Mattelart and Vitalis, “the profusion of police and government agency files worked with public authorities who wanted to identify areas of potential violence and deviance. Whether a disturbed youth, a psychiatric patient, a terrorist, or potential criminal, the goal was to anticipate behaviour that was considered dangerous or abnormal so as to prevent risks [translated here].” From then on, and against the background of the digital revolution, during the 2000s an entire architecture was established for checking people: files, databases, interconnections, and computing methods for sorting, detection, and geolocation. Computer science became an essential resource to “separate out part of the population based on their behaviour, who would then receive particular treatment.” And this can go very far. In France in September 2005, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research recommended screening small children who appeared to have behavioural issues, such as getting angry and disobeying, with in order to reduce the risks of becoming a delinquent when a teenager.

A Post-Orwellian World?

In English author Georges Orwell’s novel 1984, he described a terrifying fictitious country (Oceania) subjected to generalised social control organised by Big Brother, which is omnipresent in public space and in people’s private lives. It is in fact an allegory of a modern, technological police state that was described. It is precisely this allegory that we have in mind and that Armand Mattelart and Andre Vitalis were thinking about when they analysed the French State in the 2000s and its “security at all costs” approach, in which the “computer” played a central role. This “computer” also served as a tool for private companies, in particular banks, insurance companies, and the marketing industry.

People’s personal data, compiled from computer files, from the multiple forms we all regularly fill in, from texts and social networking, from tracking behaviour through mobile telephones…all this has been massively retrieved for commercial purposes – sometimes legally, sometimes illegally. From security profiling, we’ve moved to commercial profiling, which is very useful for finding out consumers’ behaviour and tastes, for guiding their consumption, or even for tracking the paths taken by customers in supermarkets and department stores. All of this has occurred completely behind the scenes, without anyone knowing. Big Brother is watching you


Crédits image à la Une : CC Wikiemadia Commons Sstrobeck23

Benjamin Lorre

LABISC, Université Paris 13 ( )

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Benjamin Lorre

LABISC, Université Paris 13 ( )

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