27 Feb 2008

How and why everyday people are watched: $2.5 million for surveillance research project

Determining how and why everyday people are being watched by public and private organisations – and the social consequences of this expanding surveillance – will be the focus of a new, $2.5-million collaborative research project involving Dr Kirstie Ball of the OU Business School.

Called The New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting, the project is a new Major Collaborative Research Initiative supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The initiative will be led by Sociology Professor David Lyon of Queen’s University in Canada.

The 'new transparency' makes visible the identities of individuals, the workings of institutions and flows of information in ways never before seen, says Dr. Lyon: “Surveillance – the social process underlying the new transparency – is rapidly becoming the dominant organising practice of our late modern world. Heightened public concern about security, plus growing computer-dependence and reliance on the collection of personal information by a variety of institutions, has made surveillance an everyday reality.”

The new project will examine the history, key characteristics and consequences of the 'new transparency'. Some of the issues addressed are the role of technology companies in fostering surveillance; digital media including networking sites like Facebook; post-9/11 developments including profiling and surveillance at mega-events like the Olympics; population management surveillance in conflict zones such as Israel/Palestine; and challenges and resistance to inappropriate surveillance.

Dr Kirstie Ball, the only UK academic on the team, said: “This is a major opportunity for those studying the surveillance society to consolidate and extend their work; and collaborate in a systematic and productive way. In 2006 ‘A report on the surveillance society’ made a big impact in the UK and internationally and we hope to make policy makers and the public even more aware of how surveillance affects everyday life. This also places The Open University at the heart of an exciting international social science network and presents a great opportunity for future research development in the University.”

Other co-applicants include Professors Elia Zureik, Art Cockfield and Laureen Snider (Queen’s University), Colin Bennett (University of Victoria), Andrew Clement (University of Toronto) and Kevin Haggerty (University of Alberta). Researchers from a number of other countries will collaborate on the project, while representatives from industry and government will act in an advisory capacity.

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