Rezension: The Private Security State?

Rezension: zusammen mit Criminologia-LogoKopie

Kristie Ball, Ana Canhoto, Elizabeth Daniel, Sally Dibb, Maureen Meadows and Keith Spiller: The Private Security State? Surveillance, Consumer Data and the War on Terror, CBS Press, Frederiksberg, 2015.

von Sami Coll, Lausanne

The theoretical starting point of this volume is to shed light on a predominant and growing feature in new surveillance politics: the porosity between the private and public sectors. In this case, by “private security state”, the authors mean how governments want to gather data produced by the interaction between firms and consumers for national security, rather than how governments outsource surveillance tasks to private companies.

This research focuses on the organisational level of private companies that have been required to monitor their customers in order to increase national security, in response to the War on Terror. The authors aim to analyse the impact of this politics of surveillance, both on the management level and on the everyday work of employees. It empirically embraces the complexity of two case studies: the anti-money laundering and the counter-terrorism finance regulations in retail financial services and the eBorders regulations in the retail travel industry.

While firms in the retail travel industry have been required to collect customers’ data and transmit them systemically to appropriate government services, retail financial services firms have been required to analyse customer data themselves in order to track suspicious behaviour and alert authorities when found. As expected, these governmental demands have had a considerable impact on firms, and size matters greatly. While large companies can cope with the burden of integrating what governments have demanded, many small companies have lost a lot of money and customers. Some of them were even bankrupted.

In both sectors, the work conditions and practises of employees who have direct contact with customers have been particularly affected by the changes in informational systems and strategies. As the interviews suggested, the employees have had to be extremely creative to find, when possible, the right balance between fulfilling these new surveillance tasks and maintaining the attractiveness of the firms, as well as the quality of their services. This has been somewhat easier for employees in the financial sector. While their customers can see security procedures as being beneficial for their own security, customers of the travel sector are more likely to complain and see them as unpleasant. However, in the financial sector, employees have been granted an unplanned and unclaimed autonomy that, unfortunately, sometimes forces them to discriminate against people based on their nationality or social class.

This book clearly shows that surveillance is not homogenous, particularly in these case studies, because consumer and national security surveillance goals rarely converge. It also challenges the contemporary belief of governments in the effectiveness and virtues of surveillance, and shows that firms are not always the ones wanting to monitor consumers in the first place. On the contrary, surveillance can become a huge burden for the institutional actors that are actually monitoring and generate major frustrations, especially when they do not share the governments’ blind belief. This is a burden that the financial retail sector could nevertheless better deal with. Indeed, as the volume shows in various empirical illustrations, the sector’s information system and commercial strategies were somewhat more compatible with the goals of national security. The travel industry, on the other hand, has brutally had to adopt informational systems with goals and procedures situated far from their business preoccupations, especially among small and medium companies.

Within both sectors, companies have had to perform huge strategic response efforts. Still, once they could overcome this unavoidable challenge (and when they were not bankrupted!), they generally increased they safety and legitimacy in the market. And after they had to spend large sums and go through the diverse technical and organisational issues that the book describes in detail, they even occasionally found ways to gain advantages from the systems and procedures to improve their customer relationship management strategies.

What appears very clearly after reading this volume is that governments have quite an ambiguous attitude toward private surveillance. On the one hand, they are seeking to regulate private surveillance with data protection and privacy laws. On the other hand, they are demanding companies to adopt forms of surveillance that the companies neither need nor want to develop. On this paradox, one could criticise that almost nothing is said in this book on privacy. But this, in fact, appears to be very fruitful, as it allows the research to focus principally on governance, power and resistance practises. However, one regret can perhaps still be expressed. Compared to the amazing richness of the fieldwork – including various sets of qualitative interviews, observations and quantitative surveys – the rather frugal two pages of methodology can possibly make the reader feeling a touch lost when facing the complexity of the book’s structure. But, if it were to happen, she or he should be reminded that the volume is the result of ambitious interdisciplinary research involving a demanding collaborative process, which is discussed with a stimulating reflexivity in the last chapter, including extracts of interviews with the researchers.

Sami Coll, Lausanne, Schweiz,

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