In discussions concerning the relationship between surveillance and equality, the latter is understood as lack of discrimination among individuals or social groups. In the context of surveillance, social groups are mainly conceptualized through categorization, based on socially constructed categories and situation-dependent criteria. Some surveillance practices that are relevant from the point of view of equality are explicitly aimed at surveilling individuals; in other cases, surveillance is an unintended consequence. In terms of its effect, surveillance can either reinforce or reduce social equality. The relationship between social equality and surveillance often comes up in the context of law enforcement practices and social policies, and it often relates to the phenomenon of intersectionality (i.e., people whose social position is determined by the interplay of multiple social disadvantages). This entry explains the relationship between antidiscrimination and social sorting, and how categories are socially constructed. It then discusses surveillance as harassment and the relationship between intersectionality and surveillance.

Antidiscrimination and Social Sorting

In the context of surveillance, the equality concept of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights norms that center on freedom from discrimination among social groups are the most relevant. Crucial elements within this concept of equality are the “basis” or “grounds” for discrimination (i.e., personality traits or characteristics that may cause disparate treatment of certain individuals). Antidiscrimination norms are not generally applicable, only in relation to predefined, qualified, and enumerated characteristics. These “protected grounds” mostly include the following: race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political or other opinion, social status, origin, age, and disability; and they usually refer to being characteristics that are essential to the personality, or immutable (or only subject to change with costs that are high enough not to be reasonably expected from an individual).

Surveillance-related inquiries on social equality usually apply a broader concept than the legal definition of discrimination and include social sorting, the categorization of individuals in specific situations by value and risk factor; the basis or ground for discrimination may include dressing, hairstyle, or consumer preferences—which may also be related to more substantive grounds, such as religion, political opinion, or class.

Categorization, the mental or computerized process that puts the individual in a social group or a risk group, is a central concept in both antidiscrimination law and social sorting. Antidiscrimination law builds on perception, when outlawing discrimination based on real or presumed characteristics, while social sorting sees the roots of discrimination in abstracting information on the individual.

Categories as Social Constructions

Surveillance as Harassment

Antidiscrimination norms usually codify harassment as a special, sui generis form of discrimination if it happens in connection with an individual’s protected characteristic. Certain surveillance practices that have a disproportionate impact on a protected group may in effect also amount to discrimination. Ethno-racial profiling, when members of ethno-racial groups are identified and subsequently targeted as high risk by law enforcement authorities or private security personnel, can also be conceptualized as harassment within the framework of antidiscrimination law. Racial profiling, a form of prejudice-led institutional discrimination, is problematic from the point of view of social equality, even if individual stop-and-search measures are not unlawful.

Feminist scholarship on the implications and consequences of surveillance practices also identifies surveillance as a form of sexual harassment when male employees in closed-circuit television monitoring rooms pay disproportionate and voyeuristic attention to women who pose no security risk.

Surveillance and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is highly relevant in the relationship between surveillance and social equality, especially in relation to the concept of social sorting. Intersectionality refers to when individuals have several characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, and class, that subject them to marginalization and discrimination and the interplay of these multiple disadvantages determines their social position. A notable form of social sorting concerns law enforcement authorities identifying youths or lower-middle-class nonwhite males as a high–security risk social group. This approach and practice not only cause further marginalization of the affected individuals but also create security risks for them, as being retrieved from police control and from areas under surveillance makes them vulnerable to victimization. In the field of social policies and social services, low-status, mostly welfare-recipient women—especially single mothers from a minority background—face heightened scrutiny by the child protection services responsible for social services, and they are often threatened with removal of their children to state custody.

Surveillance for Combating Social Inequality

Some surveillance initiatives have been specifically designed to combat certain forms of discrimination. A form of sousveillance concerns wearable cameras used by police officers, which are deployed to record their interactions and provide transparency in order to answer allegations of ethnic/racial profiling or disrespectful or illegal treatment of members of certain social groups.

In some nations, such as those in Scandinavia, where to end prostitution criminal sanctions have been introduced targeting customers purchasing sexual services, certain public order surveillance technologies can also be perceived as tools combating the social inequality between men and women. This abolitionist approach identifies prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation and as an indirect factor in preserving social inequalities and, hence, aims at restricting the demand for such services. This, in practice, means that surveillance technologies are used to target both public spaces and Internet sites (including dating sites) to identify and sanction clients purchasing sexual services.

A further point of connection between equality and surveillance concerns the requirement dictated by efficiency for policy measures adopted to enforce antidiscrimination regulations to establish monitoring mechanisms with data desegregated by protected grounds (e.g., gender or ethnicity), which also creates an inherent surveillance potential.

András L. Pap and Lidia Balogh

See also Policing and Society ; Profiling, Racial ; Protection Orders ; Social Sorting ; Sousveillance

Further Readings

Gilliom, John. Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Lyon, David. Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life. Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 2003.

Martin, Denise, et al. “Risky or at Risk? Young People, Surveillance and Security.” Criminal Justice Matters, v.68/1 (2007).

Monahan, Torin. “Dreams of Control at a Distance: Gender, Surveillance, and Social Control.” Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, v.9/2 (2009).

Webster, William, ed.The Social Perspective: A Report Presenting a Review of the Key Features Raised by the Social Perspectives of Surveillance and Democracy. Stirling, Scotland: University of Stirling, 2013.