Rezension: Surveillance Futures

Rezension: zusammen mit Criminologia-LogoKopie

Emmeline Taylor & Tonya Rooney (eds.): Surveillance Futures. Social and ethical implications of new technologies for children and young people, Routledge: London/New York, 2017.

von Jonas Vollmer, Berlin

The book focuses on the connection between young people and their daily life experiences regarding surveillance technologies. Organised around three “key spheres”, i.e. “schooling”, “the self” and “social life”, the volume gathers scholars from a broad range of backgrounds such as philosophy, information technology, criminology and,education. These examine practices, consequences as well as socio-political and ethical implications of young peoples‘ experiences with the currently existing variety of a growing surveillance apparatus such as RFID-Chips, smartphones, cameras and Big Data analytics.

One of the major benefit of many of the collection’s contributions is the fact that it gives a voice to the young people themselves, i.e. how they see and describe their own position and behaviour in day-to-day experiences and reflections. On the other hand, the collection breaks up superficial understandings of surveillance as a mere power practice of control and sheds some light on aspects of care, game and security-intentions, as was highlighted by Zurawski (2010) – thereby destroying ingenuous pedagogical ideals of “protecting the weak” and exposing some control practices as what they really are: surveillance measures.

In the introduction chapter, the editors Emmeline Taylor and Tonya Rooney (chapter 1) do not only give an overview on the structure and chapters of the book. They also point out new emerging trends in surveillance as genuine, ambivalent “features” of childhood to protect and control the child: Biomedical monitoring before birth (ultrasound techniques); after birth (RFID-Chips on babies); at home (Smart Baby Monitors and webcams, smart toys); at school (schools as “test-beds” for radical intensifying of surveillance, mobile phones being tracked by parents); and problems such as hackers invading the families’ privacy, as well as a shift in parental responsibility by a growing social convenience to (not) use these smart devices. The authors especially highlight the role of a growing surveillance industry (ab)using blurred borders of the private and the public and the parents‘ anxieties of safety and well-being of their children as well as feelings of guilt to not be present at any moment. Conceptually interesting is the assumption which the editors claim as underlying for all articles of the collection: Children and youth are not only perceived as victims on whom surveillance is opposed but “as active agents in the emerging forms of subjectivity, creativity, performativity and resistance that arise through the possibilities and challenges of living in the contemporary surveillance society” (p. 2). Highlighting surveillance‘s positive aspects (safety, conditioned freedom and trust) as well as its negative ones (threat to personal freedom, corroding trust and personhood) the authors shed some light on how children and youth ignore their right to privacy as well as they are deprived of it. The book aims to illustrate likewise their actions to realise the desire for a “private live”.

Part I “Schooling and education”

Emmeline Taylor (chapter 2) opens the first section of the collection, focusing on children’s experiences with technological surveillance in actual schooling. She sheds some light on Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), the most common electronic visual surveillance in schools. Although CCTV appears in media discourses as quite unproblematic, this surveillance technology has a deep impact on the growth and development of young people, especially when used in classrooms and student toilets. Taylor highlights the agency of the young people by portraying their mistrust and pointing out resistance acts against CCTV in schools in New York as well as in Brazil.
Michael Gard and Deborah Lupton (chapter 3) analyse the historical connection between health and education/schooling. They discuss the problematic effects of the “algorithmic authority” projected on children and the socio-political, material and health implications this kind of “digitising children’s bodies” may bring about. The authors highlight the risk that older forms to privilege fitness and “ideal bodies” as well as the presence of commercial entities in schools are maintained and reshaped by ideas and practices of IT, quantified self and big data.
Ben Williamson (chapter 4) also argues that the power of algorithms on children’s live is a crucial aspect of “dataveillance schools”. He therefore looks at learning analytics (capturing data form children’s educational activities) and personal analytics (tracking, monitoring school children’s bodies and functions). He asks for a form of childhood data studies to understand the complexity of childhood and the attempts of an educational data environment which tries to calculate the children by reducing them to biology, social influences and technological determinations.
Closing the first section, Emmeline Taylor (chapter 5) exemplifies the mechanisms how to normalise new surveillance technologies by integrating them into school as an institution focusing on RFID tracking in school. For Taylor, schools are “institutional incubators” for new surveillance technologies and practices, where the ostensible neutrality of surveillance technologies can be constructed before they are circulated in society. The essential question here is what such attempts means in regards to safety, privacy and ethics. Are we witnessing what could be looked at as the foundation of “smart citizens” subjected to personal tracking launched by corporations which introduce their profitable devices into education promoting health, happiness and safety?

PART II “Self, body and movement”

While the articles in part I present various forms of surveillance and their impact on (school) children’s lives, they mainly omit the aspect promised to be stressed by the editors in the introduction chapter – children and young people as active subjects dealing with and resisting to surveillance. But part II, fortunately, gives a much higher attention to that important aspect, focusing on surveillance aimed to get the child’s body controllable and the implication such attempts may have on (digitised) selves and to identities.
Murray Lee and Thomas Crofts (chapter 6) engage with this issue in their article which is based on qualitative interviews with young people between 13 and 20 years of age. They criticise the pejorative policing of sexting, especially when mingled together with child abuse and child pornography legislation. They propose not to try to contain young people’s exploration with sexual expressions and identity by hard and soft surveillance strategies – which the observed know to undermine by creating “fake” social media accounts and false names – but to develop a set of ethics for young people engaged in consensual sexting.

Jacqueline Vickery (chapter 7) and Carol Barron (chapter 8) continue along this line, stressing the agency of young people by resisting and negotiating parental surveillance via smartphone. Vickerys two-part methodological approach is highly important in order to investigate how technological industries shape social norms and contribute to normalise interwoven surveillance practices (see also Zurawski 2010). She analyses US mobile service providers’ cell phone commercials from the period 2005–14 in the way how they exacerbate fears of girls at risk as well as they normalise surveillance as necessary and convenient. Beside this examination of market expectations, Vickery includes family experiences by case studies of three girls and their families’ perspectives on surveillance via mobile media. The author calls for a need to question some discourses on girls as inherently vulnerable as well as mobile surveillance as solution to threats. Barrons article benefits from the presentation of the multiple ways young people engage in resistance practices (e.g. letting the battery run low), and by highlighting children’s need for privacy – thus questioning parents strategies to keep their children under constant surveillance.
This aspect is also taken up by Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist (chapter 9), while raising ethical concerns against the use of GPS-technology to track children. Far away to ignore security and parental as well as teachers’ responsibility, she warns about abolishing children’s right to privacy, freedom and their “growth as independent, creative and responsible individuals” (p. 129). Trust-based relationships and a step-by-step transfer of responsibility can never be based only on monitoring technology.
The growing digitisation of Health (mHealth, iHealth technologies) and mobile applications (wearables, trackers on smartphones etc) leads Emma Rich (chapter 10) to examine ethical and moral implications to the subjectivities and bodies of young people. At the example of obesity, for her not only medical devices, but as well the commercially oriented “wellness” mHealth technologies raise several questions, e.g. on masked surveillance by “game apps”, individualisation of risk instead of social learning on health and naming social structures of health, and enlarging the weight stigma. “What is the effect on one’s subjectivity if one fails to achieve the ideals of these apps? What of those individuals who choose not to engage with these practices of self-surveillance and resist them?” (p. 143).

Part III “Social lives and virtual worlds”

This part connects children’s and young people’s basic needs for playing and subsequent surveillance implications. Tonya Rooney shows in chapter 11, how children come to understand the complexities of surveillance gaze through hide-and-seek childhood games, not only online, but as well offline, being both the watcher and the watched. She also points out that children need these experimental and playful encounters outside of their adults’ surveillance gaze to develop an idea of privacy and surveillance.
Andrew Hope (chapter 12) focuses on online gaming domains as sites of surveillance by government agencies and looks into the gaming industry itself. Discussing gamification, gamified devices and video games in the context of “surveillance creep”, Hope identifies three threads for young people in online gaming environments: responsibilisation, desensitisation and marketisation. “Through online play, young people learn to engage in new surveillance opportunities that adapt to the current needs of the market” (p. 170). Although naming play as “free activity”, Hope‘s conclusions on possible resistance are poorly developed.
Chapter 13 goes beyond Hope in terms of young people’s agency. Valerie Steeves presents a list of children‘s 50 most favourite websites and the sites’ surveillance activities, based on a study involving n= 5,436 9 to 17 years aged Canadians from 2013. Highlighting hidden commercial content and the inaccessibility of the sites’ data protections policies, Steeves offers a rich insight in young peoples attitudes to commercial surveillance and the fact that, despite to contrary public opinion, a huge percentage of young people are unhappy about their personal data being accessed and used.
Rosamunde Van Brakel (chapter 14) finally closes the collection with her article on unintended social and ethical consequences of the implementation of pre-emptive surveillance practices in England and Wales. Focusing on a case study from RYOGENS (Reducing Youth Offending Generic Electronic National Solution) and the social and ethical issues this project harms by collecting children’s’ data (privacy and dignity, trust, justice and fairness, transparency and accountability), Van Brakel uncovers that this technology not only controls, monitors and cares for children, but probably pre-defines possible selfhoods limiting or restraining a child’s future potential.

Summary or: Why do you have to read this book

“Surveillance Futures” is an outstanding collection of a broad range of disciplines, focuses and concepts, balanced by theoretical and empirical approaches. It considers surveillance and children under micro and macro perspectives: the surveillance state in cooperation with Big Business and their psycho-political interests of social engineering (Han 2016). It also addresses surveillance as control technology of the socio-cultural everyday-life practices of acting subjects with underlying ideas, desires, aims and (un-) intended consequences (Zurawski 2010). Namely Taylor and Williamson highlight the ambiguous role of schools as caring and, at the same time, surveillance institutions. Barron and Rooney, and especially Steeves, show us the many ways children and young people may deal actively with surveillance, making profit of it or resist to it. It becomes clear that surveillance and young people form an interdependent field consisting of technology, artefacts and attitudes as well as behaviour.

Read either in sections or by individual chapter, this books offers a remarkable introduction and helpful research insights for a broad public, i.e. for researchers in surveillance studies as well as for teachers, social workers, medicals and parents, and last but not least for political decision makers and educators to remind them on their core task: empowering young people in the digital age and “push back against the ongoing commodification of the networked spaces in which they play, learn and mature” (Steeves, p. 175).


  • Zurawski, Nils (2010): Der Schatten von Datenschutz und Big Brother. Was kann man damit erklären und wo sind ihre Grenzen für die Forschung zu Überwachung und Kontrolle, in: Sandro Gaycken (Hg.): Jenseits von 1984. Datenschutz und Überwachung in der     fortgeschrittenen Informationsgesellschaft. Eine Versachlichung, Bielefeld: transcript 2013, S. 121-145.
  • Han, Byung-Chul (2016 [2015]): Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Frankfurt: Fischer.

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