Surveillance Intersectional: historical continuities

Most surveillance researchers agree that both the extent and intensity of state-sponsored mass surveillance, as well as the public discourse on surveillance, have escalated across the globe since the 9/11 attacks in the USA. In these, the contentious issues, for the most part, concern modern surveillance technologies, surveillance data, the trade-off between civil liberties and security, and, in the meantime, also the wealth of surveillance-critical data held by major corporations such as Facebook, Google or Amazon.

A differentiated gender perspective, however, tends not to be a focal issue here, never mind an intersectional approach. This is surprising. After all, both gender research and surveillance research are disciplines whose core activities have, from the very outset of their existence, been to combat the various power relations as well as social and/or state control of the human body.

Exactly why an intersectional approach is crucial in this area becomes apparent when we realize how tightly entwined gender, race, and surveillance have been in the past. Even though they may have been publicly discussed on numerous occasions ever since, modern surveillance practices and technologies did not, in fact, emerge in a post-9/11 vacuum but fall into a long history of science-based quantification, including in the service of population control.

Gender and sexuality previously raised their heads as mechanisms of surveillance and control long before today's omnipresent surveillance technologies took on their final shape. In addition to the direct, patriarchal surveillance and control of women's bodies – these were, after all, deemed to be the property and subsequently responsibility of fathers and husbands – family structures, religious- and moral-based social norms and state interventions also provided for the construction and preservation of a binary gender concept together with the corresponding hierarchies.

For many women, the patriarchal surveillance of their bodies, their movement, or their political and economic participation are anything but a thing of the past. Here, too, the widespread availability of apps and platforms that make it easier to track and stalk partners, family members, and other people – whether by design or misappropriation – has seen the inception of new dimensions. Added to this are forms of online harassment that frequently target women, sexual minorities, feminists and other activists or ethnic minorities.

By the same token, racialized surveillance can also be viewed as a social control technology, which (re)produces antiquated norms and thus helps determine who is (or is not) welcome. In her investigation into the surveillance technologies applied in the transatlantic slave trade, surveillance researcher, Simone Browne, illustrates, for example, that such technologies are both echoed in modern-day surveillance practice and also continue to be of high relevance in debates and research on surveillance.[1] Practices such as body measurements or the branding of slaves, for example, persist in modern-day biometric data collection or automated facial recognition. By the same token, omnipresent racial profiling, especially of Muslims, at national borders and on the street, would be barely conceivable without the colonial, orientalist, and racist logic that facilitates it in the first place.

Shaped by European enlightenment thinking, tainted under the banner of rationality and objectivity, and, at times, fraught with blind faith in science and progress, data were industriously collected even before the emergence of the digital era. Entire scientific disciplines and bureaucratic apparatuses served to control populations, colonies, and the violent enforcement of their institutional order.

Colonial rule, for example, was closely associated with scientific population management. In order to govern, colonial rulers gathered as much data on their local population as possible; after all, knowledge and power are tightly intertwined. This included not just acquiring knowledge of the geographical regions and political structures but also the meticulous categorization and description of people and their social forms. Racial thinking, gender, sexuality, and religion all played a major role in this process.

The colonies served as a form of laboratory for testing and refining surveillance technologies before they were implemented and used in Europe. In one case in point, William J. Herschel, a colonial officer in British India, was the first to introduce fingerprinting as a biometric identification feature in the 19th century.[2] Once back in England, he published his experiences on this in scientific journals and is seen as the pioneer of dactyloscopy identification. Bentham's panopticon design – later to be popularised by Foucault and long since one of the distinctive metaphors in surveillance discourse – was not constructed in Europe, as popularly believed, but in India under British colonial rule.[3]

What we imagine today to be surveillance technologies – typically driven by vast amounts of electronic data – is, therefore, at best, the most recent manifestation of an occidental taxonomy fetish with a long, dark history. And, even today, surveillance – according to Scottish sociologist David Lyon – is characterized as a form of social sorting.[4] It is used to divide people into categories and, with the aid of aggregated data and, not least of all, characteristic features, to shed light on a person's gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity or religion, to attribute values and risks, and to seek to establish prognoses on future terrorist tendencies, crimes or consumer behaviour.

Not least of all, modern-day surveillance, as well as surveillance that has arisen in the course of the historical continuities briefly outlined here, have much to do with seeing and being seen. The modalities of seeing, i.e. who sees and who is being seen, and through whose eyes this is done, bear just as much the stamp of intersectionality as the practice of surveillance itself. It stands to reason that a male-dominated viewpoint profoundly shapes not only the direct surveillance and control of women's bodies but also the scientific history underlying every form of data collection.

Accompanied by colonial and racist perspectives, surveillance thus becomes an example of the "god trick of seeing everything from nowhere", as Donna Haraway Frances frames it in her description of a white, male perspective of neutral objectivity in her plea for a production of situated knowledge.[5] Surveillance data, too, is invariably incomplete, conditional, and locally contextualized. The blind spots that are made (more) visible by applying intersectionality help us to understand the surveillance landscape better. This approach shifts the focus from the individual surveillance technologies and surveillance practices applied by states or corporations to the power relations that underpin surveillance.

[1] Simone Browne (2015). Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press.

[2] Ahmad H. Sa’di (2012), Colonialism and Surveillance. In: Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, p. 151

[3] Martha Kaplan (1995),

[4] David Lyon (2003), Surveillance as social sorting: computer codes and mobile bodies. Routledge.

[5] Donna Haraway (1988), (download)