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(7) Control and Surveillance

Aims and objectives

The aim of this section is to explore the issues of control and surveillance in relation to the use of various forms of Information Technology.


We will begin by looking at the Electronic Panopticon. The original Panopticon, proposed by Jeremy Bentham, is an architectural design for a prison which has a central tower in a circular building that is divided into individual cells. Each cell extends the entire thickness of the building and has both inner and outer windows. "The occupants of the cells ... are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen". The final goal is for the inmate to internalize the mechanism of surveillance that the building establishes. The actual and imagined inspections act to reinforce each other in the minds of the prisoner. As Bentham describes it, the "... apparent omnipresence of the inspector ... combined with the extreme facility of his real presence". Surveillance is continuous in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its actions.

Now that computers are increasingly being used to set tasks and performances for all levels of worker there appears to be scope for Bentham's original idea to be expressed in a new electronic form. Computer-based monitoring automatically records statistics about the work of the employee who is using a computer. For example, with data entry operators it allows the employer to count the gross number of keystrokes, the number of minutes on the machine, etc which can then be used to evaluate employees. Similarly, for telephone operators, the computer captures information about the length of the call, time between calls, and the number of calls taken in a specific period. Although much of the discussion of the Electronic Panopticon focuses on computer surveillance at work, similar arguments can be applied to the used of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras (e.g. Who's watching the watchers?)

The paper Information Systems, Power and Organizational Relations, which presents a critical analysis of the changes in organizational relations surrounding the implementation of a large information system in a New Zealand hospital, will provide a further example of how this might work in 'real life'.

Following the discussion of the Panopticon, we will continue by exploring the need for control in the context of balancing the rights of the individual against the rights of the collective. Finally, we will examine the concept of the digital persona, data images and information mosaic as an introduction to the next topic.




  1. EE - Chap 2, 4, 5, 9, in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society: Computers and Social Control in Context, Lyon. D. Polity Press, 1994.
  2. CE - Chap 6 The Invasion of Privacy in Computer Ethics. Forrester. T. and Morrison. P. Basil Blackwell, 1994.
  3. IT(1) - Information Technology: Social Issues - A Reader, Ed. Finnegan. R, Salaman. G and Thompson. K., The Open University/Hodder and Stoughton., 1994.

Some Additional Reading (in library)

  1. McKinnon Sharon M. and Bruns, William J. Jr., The Information Mosaic, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992.
  2. John Shattuck and Muriel Morisey Spence, "The Dangers of Information Control," in Tom Forestor, ed., Computers in the Human Context: Information, Technology, Productivity, and People, Cambridge, 1989.
  3. CAMPBELL Duncan, and CONNOR Steve. On the record: surveillance, computers and privacy, the inside story., Michael Joseph, 1986.
  4. FINLAY Marike. Powermatics: a discursive critique of new communications technology., Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.
  5. LAW John. A sociology of monsters: essays on power, technology and domination, Routledge, 1991.
  6. WINFIELD Ian. Organizations and information technology: systems, power and job design., Blackwell, 1991.

Web Links

The following may also be of interest:

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