The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting

Final Summary Report July 2015

An MCRI project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The New Transparency makes visible the identities of individuals, workings of institutions and flows of information in ways never before seen. Surveillance, the social process underlying the New Transparency, is rapidly becoming the dominant organizing practice of our late modern world. Given growing computer-dependence and reliance on personal data collection and processing by a variety of institutions, and heightened public concern about security, surveillance is now experienced as an everyday reality. The history, key characteristics and consequences of the New Transparency will be examined by asking three vitally important questions:

  • What factors contribute to the general expansion of surveillance as a technology of governance in late modern societies?
  • What are the underlying principles, technological infrastructures and institutional frameworks that support surveillance practice?
  • What are the social consequences of such surveillance both for institutions and for ordinary people?

An internationally respected team, comprising many of the leading surveillance scholars in the world, address these questions by conducting research on emergent surveillance fields, guided by a framework of "domains" that are linked to "trends." The domains are: public spaces, electronic interactions, and mega events. The trends are: pre-emptive goals achieved through data mining and profiling of individuals to anticipate future behaviour patterns, assign risk levels or allocate resources; criminalization of personal data, that is, the use of "innocent" sources of mundane personal information as databases for crime control; and citizenship challenges based on differential treatment.

The domains and trends are used as map and compass to develop the research program of integrated research sub-projects (IRSPs). Four IRSPs have been chosen as vital components to address the research objectives head-on and as a means to operationalize the domains and trends. The IRSPs are: The Role of Technology Companies, Digitally Mediated Surveillance, Surveillance Consequences of 9/11 and Surveillance and Population Management. Each IRSP represents a cluster of crucially important surveillance research questions amenable to carrying out this comparative and cross-disciplinary analysis.

The goal is to create a benchmark for surveillance studies that is comparative and critical, informed by multi-disciplinary approaches and has cutting-edge policy relevance. It will move beyond the limitations of existing local- and present-oriented studies to comparative and cross-disciplinary studies, and will take into account rapid information technology changes and pivotal political-economic and cultural shifts, not least the developments since 9/11. No previous collaborative research project worldwide has undertaken the examination of surveillance in the way proposed.

Queen's University is established as home to one of the most long-standing, influential and innovative scholarly initiatives on surveillance directed by David Lyon - the Surveillance Studies Centre. This distinguished track record of successful research will confirm and extend Canada's leadership role in this area so that Canada will be recognized a world leader in international surveillance work.

Graduate students and junior scholars, who are vital to the success of this program, gain experience in collaboration and state-of-the-art critical research through regional and foreign exchanges and internships at collaborating institutions, summer seminars, and participation in research conferences and workshops. Also essential to the success of this project are the partners and stakeholders, including the Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority (CATSA), the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), the Surveillance Studies Network (SSN), the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC).

Dissemination to academic, policy and public venues is planned that will create a surveillance knowledge base that is second-to-none. Surveillance is an engaging and potentially informative theme that would help place these issues in the forefront of the public mind through popular writing, TV, film, blogs, new media installations and exhibitions - all of which are planned in addition to publishing special issues of refereed journals and producing informed and critical reports on high-profile issues and accessible books. A critical mass of appropriate scholars is now available and ready to perform research of this scope and depth, which is becoming more and more important to society as surveillance practices increase at an exponential rate while our understanding of their implications is not keeping pace.

Project Partners