3: History

Adrian Castillo

Surveillance is a neutral-value concept that is as old as civilization itself. The basic idea of gathering information about individuals has been connected to sinister and good ends. Hence, on the one hand, surveillance can be associated with the subjugation of people or “disciplining the watched subjects” (Galic et al., 2017), as seen throughout history in colonialism, fascism, communism, and even within democratic societies when anti-democratic behavior is practiced (Marx, 2015). Conversely, surveillance has also been used for good ends and is fundamental for effective governance; this is exemplified in the provision of security, public health surveillance, or in any event where surveillance does not flow downwards or serves to disadvantage individuals (Marx, 2015).

Figure 2.

The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene)

Note. From The School of Athens by Raphael Sanzio (1511), Wikimedia Commons (https://tinyurl.com/3ycp7vhe). In the public domain.

Surveillance in Classical Greece (500-336 BC)

Although today we relate surveillance to the use of technology, early surveillance practices appeared in the cradle of Western civilization, namely, classical Greece. The culture from which ideas about modern democracy derive conceived surveillance as a repressive and normalizing tool. As an illustration, Plato and Aristotle argued that careful official monitoring of the population was needed to control the lack of order that grew from the liberty to “do as you please” (Johnstone, 2003, p. 260). Aristotle even stated the following in his book series Politics:

 [The ruler must] see to it that none of the things his subjects say or do escapes his notice; rather, he must have spies [Kataskopoi], . . . in any gathering or conference, for when men fear they speak less freely, and if they do speak freely they are less likely to escape notice” (as cited in Russell, 2000, p. 107).

 Thus, we can see how surveillance was used as a tool for social conformity and erosion of intellectual freedom. On the other hand, Greek culture fostered a strong desire for honor (Johnstone, 2013) and thus a willingness to be subject to the judgment of others. Even the word honor is defined as “good name or public esteem” and is associated with reputation, merit, and recognition (Merriam-Webster, 2021, definition of honor section). As such, Greek democracy made explicit what was implicit, namely honor as a system of surveillance: “To win honor . . . a person must live his life in public” (as cited in Johnstone, 2013 p. 259).

Early surveillance practices collected information using interpersonal contact between people rather than technical means (Watson, 2021).

Surveillance in Nazi Germany (1933 – 1943)

Infamous for its brutality and racism, Nazi Germany created a form of political policing meant to maintain the status quo and eliminate all political dissidents (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2021). The Gestapo, also known as the “Secret State Police,” gathered information about the population by searching homes and apartments, reading suspects’ mail, listening to telephone conversations, and applying brutal methods of interrogation.

Surveillance in the Soviet Union (1922-1991)

All ideological extremes have created their political policing forms; however, crucial differences in purpose, method, and function have historically made the KGB notorious. According to Hein (2012), the KGB, the security agency of the Soviet Union, was primarily concerned about what people were thinking. Consequently, the agency created ideological re-education interrogations and lectures that boasted Soviet achievements. The Stanford historian Amir Weiner explains “[Soviet] interrogations aimed at reducing their targets to a state of utter helplessness, to the point that they realized the aimlessness of their previous existence and submitted to Soviet power or, even better, converted to its cause” (as cited in Hein, 2012, Mind control section).

 Western colonialism and surveillance (1500 AD – the 1950s)

When colonial powers seized new territories, they used surveillance as a reformatory strategy, which commonly segregated the local Indigenous populations into isolated enclaves. For example, Smith (2009) notes that when Euro-Canadians imposed themselves in First Nations territory, they created “Indian reserves” limited not only by geographical borders but also cultural and racial barriers, whereby missionaries could indoctrinate Indigenous peoples into religious practices and social conducts acceptable to Euro-Canadians.

Following the rationale of surveillance as a reformatory strategy, the 1880s saw the creation of the Canadian Indian Residential School System, a colonial effort led by three institutions: the Canadian government, the Catholic Church, and various Protestant churches. The goal was to “[t]o civilize and Christianize” (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015, Preface section) and “[t]o kill the Indian in the child” (UBC First Nations and Indigenous Studies, 2017, para. 5). To achieve that, the residential school system broke the bonds between Indigenous parents and their children and, ultimately, sought to assimilate them into Canadian society (Historica Canada, n.d.; First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2017). The residential school system lasted until the closing decades of the 20th century. Its legacy is intergenerational trauma, loss of language, and death (TRC, 2015).

Eventually, the colonial models of surveillance that were once exercised on colonized countries and subjugated peoples found their way back to Western governments and were used against their own peoples. The French philosopher, Michelle Foucault, identified this as “[t]he Imperial Boomerang Effect,” which means “the West practicing something resembling colonization […] [on] itself” (as cited in Berda, 2013, p. 629).

Surveillance in Liberal Democracies (Present)

A central feature of liberal democracies is their systems of checks and balances, which are intended, among other things, to prevent domestic security agencies from engaging in invasive surveillance practices (Hein, 2012). Nevertheless, in 2013, a former systems administrator for the CIA, Edward Snowden, made public how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) obtained direct access to servers of internet firms, including Facebook, Google, and Apple, in order to track online communication in a surveillance program known as Prism (Greenwald & MacAskill, 2013).

Under the Prism program, the NSA collected, without any warrants, the search history, the content of emails, file transfers, and live chats of millions of Americans (Greenwald & MacAskill, 2013). Edward Snowden’s actions as a whistleblower are now seen as pivotal to igniting a public debate on accountability, surveillance, and the role of public and private actors in administrating the internet.

More details about the NSA are explored in the following video:

The New York Times. (2013, November 4). The NSA’s evolution: Surveillance in a post-9/11 world [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97C0mgQ6v6E

The following chapter examines a new kind of internet surveillance, this time for economic purposes.