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Citizenship and its Relation to Surveillance and Privacy

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Citizenship as Surveillance

“When you single out any particular group of people for secondary citizenship status, that’s a violation of basic human rights”- Jimmy Carter. Often taken for granted, citizenship is something that we know superficially what it is, but never think too deeply about. But every single day, for millions of people, citizenship is something to be worried about, something that others use to rise above the rest. Based on personal experiences as well as extensive research, this essay will discuss not only what citizenship at its core is, but also its uses as surveillance and how it impacts everyday life. I will be drawing primarily from concepts detailed by three scholars in the area of surveillance- David Lyon, Steven Nock, and Michel Foucault, with some material from John Torpey. From Lyon, I will be referencing the ideas of social sorting and data flow; from Nock, I will be referencing the idea of credentials; from Foucault, I will be referencing the idea of disciplinary power. Furthermore, I will be looking at the impact of these concepts from each scholar onto the issues of social exclusion and discrimination. Through such an analysis, I will detail the net benefits and harms of citizenship as it pertains to surveillance and the everyday person.

What is citizenship? Webster’s Dictionary simply defines it as “being an inhabitant of a city or town; especially one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman”. But of course, this is an incredibly superficial definition. At it’s core, according to John Torpey, citizenship is a way for states “to deprive people of the freedom to move across certain spaces and to render them dependent on states and the state system for the authorization to do so – an authority widely held in private hands theretofore”. While citizenship, at first glance, simply seems to be just another way to distinguish between nationals of one state opposed to nationals of another, its use for governments goes far greater than that. The creation of passports and other such devices has led citizenship to not only be simply documentation, but also a method of control and surveillance. As Torpey furthers, “A critical aspect of this process has been that people have also become dependent on states for the possession of an “identity” from which they can escape only with difficulty and which may significantly shape their access to various spaces”. While originally just a way for states to determine borders and other logistics, citizenship over the years has evolved greatly. From passports and Social Security numbers to crime databases and border patrol checks, the methods by which governments restrict and control our movements are growing. However, the question remains: How do states use citizenship to surveil its citizens?

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The primary way governments surveil its citizens through citizenship is the creation of passports. Passports allow for entry into the issuing country and are accepted as valid identification for international border crossings. Because passports are used as identification, they contain information such as name, date of birth, and biometrics. However, past simple identification, passports also serve as a means of surveillance is by providing identification/classification as well as tracking/restricting movement. As Torpey states, “states have sought to monopolize the capacity to authorize the movements of persons – and unambiguously to establish their identities in order to enforce this authority”. As detailed before, the ultimate goal of citizenship is to restrict and control the movements of persons. The role passports play in this is by establishing the identity of such persons in order to better restrict them. Passports act as a credential, which, as Steven Nock writes, is “a way to create reputation among strangers, or “A minimum basis for trust in the absence of personal knowledge”. He further, saying that credentials are necessary to the extent that we must trust people we don’t know. In this case, passports act as a simple way for law enforcement to ensure criminals are not moving about freely. As such, checking passports at border crossing or flights not only establish identity, but also trust.

The way passports do this is through data flow. As defined by David Lyon, data flow is the transferring of information collected by one surveillance technology to another. In the case of passports, most, if not all, have an embedded chip that allows police, border patrol agents, and the like to simply swipe a passport to pull up all of a citizen’s history. Most notably, this chip contains data from the TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications Systems) which allows different law agencies to exchange criminal information with each other. That means that your entire criminal record, whether it be with the Border Patrol, the FBI, or even the local police, can be found with just a swipe of your passport. But even more so, this data is then used for social sorting. Social sorting, as defined by David Lyon, is “the social practice of surveillance and control to sort out, filter and serialize who needs to be controlled and who is free of that control”. At face value, this seems to be a good thing. After all, ensuring criminals are walking around free sounds like a good deal for a small invasion of privacy. However, the issue comes with the use of social sorting today. As Lyon states, “the new penology is concerned with techniques for identifying, managing and classifying groups sorted by levels of dangerousness. Rather than using evidence of criminal behaviour, newer approaches intervene on the basis of risk assessment”. Instead of allowing or denying movement based on tangible criminal behavior, the use of such data has moved towards prediction of criminal behavior. As such, social sorting in the case of citizenship has progressed past simply who is a criminal versus who is not a criminal and instead sorts people based on who is likely to become a criminal.

The impact of this to everyday life is great. One specific way is through the idea of disciplinary power, which is, as Foucault defines it, the idea that “Discipline is a mechanism of power which regulates the behaviour of individuals in the social body.” This simply means that the use of surveillance allows institutions to use discipline to enforce specific behaviors within people. In the case of citizenship, this disciplinary power exists in two ways. Firstly, it exists from the government. A historical example of such is the case of the Soviet Union and Soviet passports. In this case, the Soviet Union issued passports based on who supported the Soviet ideology. Those who were completely indoctrinated were allowed to travel freely; however, those who did not support the Soviet ideology were effectively restricted to poor areas. As such, the Soviet Union used disciplinary power (restricting movement based on ideology) in order to promote a specific behavior (supporting the Soviet ideology). In this case, it’s directly from the government itself.

However, the second way disciplinary power exists in citizenship is through the deinstitutionalization of disciplinary power, as offered by William Staples. Instead of the government itself directly enforcing specific behavior, this type of disciplinary power relies on other citizens to promote citizenship. And indeed, this concept is prevalent even today, with prejudices against the “foreigners” and the “illegals”. This kind of social exclusion and discrimination promote the idea of citizenship if only to escape the attacks of others. Talking to my parents, who immigrated to the United States from China, I found it interesting and slightly disheartening to hear their experiences. They way people treat citizens and noncitizens if very different. Because my parents didn’t speak very much English, communication was an issue and it was difficult getting jobs. There was a certain amount of prejudice against immigrants and not being a citizen incurs a certain amount of suspicion. After all, citizenship is seen as a “patriotic duty”, and not engaging in such a process can be perceived as not embracing the American culture. While the difference in attitude wasn’t immediate and polarizing, there was a lot more acceptance when my parents became citizens. The attitude of those around them became more akin to that of a community rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. As such, from this experience, I found it clear the impact that disciplinary power had upon citizenship and social exclusion and discrimination. There’s a certain “us versus them” mentality, and the stigma associated with not being a citizen is great.

As such, it’s clear the impact citizenship has on everyday life. Although it may seem innocuous, the role citizenship plays in surveillance is great. With the use of credentials and data flow, citizenship ultimately results in issues such as social sorting and disciplinary power. What then results is a great amount of social exclusion and discrimination based solely on the characteristics of citizenship. From immigration to criminal activity, everyone is subject to judgement and the increasing pervasion of privacy only exacerbates these impacts. While there does need to be a certain amount of credibility associated with each person, the overreach of states through surveillance will only result in increased tension and stratification.


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