Author Archive

Talking about surveillance

June 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Project researchers

Darren Ellis (School of Law & Social sciences):
David Harper (School of Psychology):
Ian Tucker (School of Psychology):


The first stage of this project consisted of a small qualitative pilot study. Two research assistants (Dr Hugh Ortega-Breton and Dr Chrysanthi Nigianni) interviewed 31 adults in London and the South East of the UK in the Spring of 2010 and then transcribed the interviews. Over the last year the project researchers have been analysing the data and presenting elements of the study. A book chapter and a journal article are currently under review and two other articles are in preparation.

Outputs so far
Harper, D. (2011). Paranoia and public responses to cyber-surveillance. Paper presented at Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life: An International Workshop, 12-15 May 2011, University of Toronto.

Ellis, D., Harper, D., Tucker, I. (2010). The organisation of life: Everyday experiences of surveillance and dataveillance technologies. Paper presented Political Economy of Surveillance workshop, Hilton hotel, Milton Keynes, 9-11 September.


We designed an interview format that consisted of a semi-structured interview schedule (see below). Later in the interview participants are asked to read a short information sheet on surveillance and dataveillance (also below). They are then asked about their responses to this material. We’re happy for other researchers to use this format provided acknowledgement is given. We’d be interested in hearing the results of such studies. The format was designed in a methodologically open manner and it can be analysed using qualitative analytic methods (e.g. discourse analysis, thematic analysis etc.) or hybrid quantitative/qualitative methods (e.g. content analysis).

As well as the UEL study, this format has also been used by Arsalan Butt, PhD student & Professor Richard Smith (School of Communication, Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology, Simon Fraser University):

Arsalan Butt homepage:
Richard Smith homepage:

Work-in-progress presented by Butt and Smith at Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life workshop at the University of Toronto, May 2011: “I might not scratch my ass if I think there might be a camera taping it”: Public Perception of Surveillance Technologies in Everyday Life:

Semi-structured interview schedule
Opening questions

• What systems of surveillance (e.g. CCTV) and personal data storage (e.g. DVLA) are they aware of?
• Kinds of information they are aware of and who has access it
• Thoughts about the collection and use of data?
• Benefits of data collection (e.g. for crime etc)
• Some people say that Britain has become a “surveillance society”. What do they think this means? Do they agree?
• Any concerns about surveillance and data collection (e.g. data being lost on laptops, disks etc).
• Does level of concern vary according to the type of information or use to which it is put?
• How do they balance the right to privacy against other things like fighting crime or convenience (e.g. when shopping on the internet)?

Impact on daily life

• To what extent, if any, are they aware of surveillance or data collection in everyday life (e.g. CCTV, databases etc).
• If they are aware at various times, what triggers this (e.g. speed cameras, crime programmes on TV etc)
• Does it have an impact on the way they go about their everyday lives?


Effect of information about surveillance and personal data

• Give list of surveillance and personal data held
• Any on the list they were not aware of?
• What information do they think these agencies hold?
• What do they think of the kind and extent of information held?

Information sheet: The use of personal data

Please read this leaflet – it should only take 5-10 minutes

What kind of information is held on you? By whom? What is it used for?

Name and address details: Most organisations you deal with. Details from the electoral register are also sold to businesses by your council unless you have asked to be left out. This is one of the ways they get addresses for ‘junk mail’.

Health information: Your GP and dentist and local health Trusts. Also your health insurer if you have one. The NHS is moving its records onto a computerised system.

Driving licence details: These are held by the DVLA in Swansea. They too sell information (e.g. to wheel clampers). They will also give out your details if someone tells them they have had an accident with a car with your number plate.

Car number plate: Across the country your number plate is read by cameras which are linked to the police. If a car is tagged as of interest by the Police National Computer then it will be stopped by the police. Police note down car number plates at political demonstrations. There have been cases where drivers who have previously attended demonstrations have been stopped by the police as a result of these number plate cameras.

Video: Every day it is likely that your image will be caught on a CCTV camera. These are run by shops and businesses, the council, public transport and some residents. No-one knows how many cameras there are in the country but there are at least 25,000 in London. Nationally the number of council-run CCTV cameras has trebled over the last ten years. London councils have about 7,500 cameras. In addition, Transport for London has over 8,000 cameras on tube trains, another 8,000 cameras at stations, 400 congestion charge cameras and over a thousand traffic enforcement cameras. The London borough of Wandsworth has as many CCTV cameras (1,113) as Dublin City Council, the Police departments of Johannesburg and Boston and the City of Sydney authority combined. Video images are held for different periods of time – longer if they portray a criminal offence. Unless you are of interest to the police it is not likely that they will be linked to you as a named individual. There is a debate about whether CCTV prevents crime or simply moves it to other areas. A 2008 report by the Metropolitan police suggested only 1,000 crimes were solved that year by CCTV. However, supporters say it tends to be used most intensively on serious cases like murder or terrorism.

Your shopping habits: Shops collect information on what you buy from them. If you have a store loyalty card like Tesco Clubcard or Nectar it collects information on what you buy. On the internet, stores like Amazon and Ebay install ‘cookies’ on your computer. Cookies are small programmes that identify who you are and your shopping preferences. They mean you do not need to re-enter your details every time you visit the website.

Your finances: Your bank or building society and tax office stores information about your finances. In addition to this there are businesses called ‘credit reference companies’ like Experian that sell information about your credit history to lenders. Fraudsters try to get hold of credit card and online banking details. In 2009 about £440 million was lost through Credit Card fraud. Another £60 million was lost through fraud of online bank accounts.

Travel details: These will be stored by your airline, travel agent and travel insurer. Airlines will also share information about you with US and European travel authorities. Border and immigration authorities share information with one another.

The police and courts: The national DNA database stores details of all those arrested not just those who are found guilty by a court. Details of five million people are held on it. About 30,000 of these are victims and witnesses who gave their DNA to help identify suspects. In addition, the Police National Computer stores details on people, driving licences and vehicles and has about 97 million records on it. Individual police forces also hold separate intelligence databases.

Other personal information: Generally, any information you enter about yourself on the internet is stored somewhere and is linked to the computer you use by its identification number. If you use websites like Facebook or Myspace then all the information you enter about yourself and the links you have with other people is stored by those companies. Emails are also stored for a period as are any search words you have entered into sites like Google. Mobile phone companies store information about who you call for several months. Also, if you use an Oyster card, information about your travel is stored. The police and a number of other government bodies can request data from all these companies.

Is information shared? Generally, companies cannot share information about you with other companies without your permission. However, government bodies can request such information. These government bodies also share information with each other to try to prevent fraud (e.g. benefit fraud), crime and tax evasion and to investigate offences.

How securely is it kept and what controls are there?

In general, information about you and your family is stored securely. There are a number of legal safeguards like the Data Protection Act. This means you can usually access information held about you and usually correct it if it is wrong. You can also sue for damages in serious cases. You can generally opt out if you do not want your details to be shared with or sold to other organisations. The Information Commission is an independent watchdog which monitors the use of information and the commissioner can recommend cases for prosecution. However, there have been a number of incidents where computer disks and laptops containing information have gone missing or where they have been sold illegally:

• In 2007 two computer discs holding details of 25 million child benefit claimants was lost in the mail. It included name, address, date of birth, National Insurance number and bank details.
• In May 2008 a computer disc containing the medical records of more than 38,000 NHS patients was lost by the courier company.
• In November 2009 the Information Commissioner reported that staff at mobile phone company T-Mobile sold details of thousands of customers to brokers. These brokers then sold the data to other phone firms to use in ‘cold calling’.
• In 2009 there were 60,000 criminal acts of impersonation – so-called ‘identity theft’ where a person tries to pass themselves off as another person using that other person’s details (e.g. name, address etc).

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Public perceptions of surveillance and use of personal data (Darren Ellis)

March 23, 2010 6 comments

Hi, I’m Darren Ellis, a lecturer in UEL, HSS, Psychosocial Studies. I thought I’d just write a little bit about a cross-school project that I’m doing with some colleagues in the School of Psychology at UEL (Dave Harper and Ian Tucker). Recently (March, 2010) we managed to secure a small amount of funding to recruit two research assistants to help us collect some interview data regarding perceptions of surveillance and the use of personal data. As you may havce noticed, there has been increased public debate in recent years about the social impact of surveillance and the storage of personal information on databases due to the ever increasing technological capability of surveillance and database systems. In 2006 the Information Commissioner commissioned a Report on the ‘Surveillance Society’ followed in 2008 by a select committee inquiry (House of Commons Home Affairs Committee). Last year the Joseph Rowntree Trust published a report on the ‘Database State’ and have gone on to sponsor an ICM poll on privacy rights and even a film on the encroachment of surveillance on privacy (Erasing David) These reports have generally focused on technological capabilities and human rights concerns, particularly about privacy. However, somewhat surprisingly, they did not include any empirical investigation of public perceptions of surveillance.

There has also been an ever increasing amount of theorisation about issues concerned with surveillance; beginning with ‘Foucault’s panopticon’ up to more recent Deleuzian theorisations of ‘rhizomatic surveillance assemblages’. Although these theories have been extremely useful in facilitating the development of compelling models of surveillance systems, they tell us very little about how the public generally perceive and experience them. Indeed one of the major gaps in the surveillance literature is a rigorous investigation of the dynamics of public perceptions of surveillance. So, to enable us to explore participants’ perceptions of surveillance in more detail we’re conducting a qualitative study which we hope will help to elucidate dynamic and contextual factors influencing perceptions.

We are interested in any thoughts you may have on this project, so do contact us:

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