Public Release: 

Post-9/11 surveillance crosses borders, affects 'ordinary people'

Queen's-led project awarded $1.9 M to study impact of personal data flow

Queen's University

The trend toward increased surveillance post 9/11 is invading the lives of ordinary people - enabling a form of "social sorting" that categorizes them and may even play a role in determining personal employment and mobility options, says a Queen's expert in communications technology and privacy issues.

Dr. David Lyon heads an international research team that has just been awarded a $1.9 million Initiative on the New Economy (INE) Collaborative Research Initiative grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The team will investigate the implications of the increasing flow across international borders of "personal data", from telephone numbers and PINs to fingerprints and retinal scans.

"Surveillance is not just something done to people by the government or the police: it's also determined by how far the ordinary person is prepared to go along with it," says Dr. Lyon.

"Neither complacency on the one hand, nor paranoia on the other, is a very useful response. We'd like to generate some informed debate that will lead to increased awareness and positive change."

Co-applicants from Queen's are Dr. Yolande Chan, Management Information Systems professor from the School of Business, and sociologist Dr. Elia Zureik. Researchers from a number of other countries will collaborate on the project, and representatives from industry, government and other policy-making agencies will act in an advisory capacity.

The research builds on work begun in the SSHRC-funded Queen's Surveillance Project, a cross-disciplinary, international initiative examining social processes and technological developments in processing personal data.

"Although the events of 9/11 greatly intensified surveillance activities, techniques such as public video surveillance and iris scans were already widely in use," says Dr. Lyon, who notes that in this context "surveillance" means any focused attention to personal details that would attempt to exert influence over, manage, or otherwise have an effect on a person.

Both e-commerce and international policing are areas that have recently seen a huge increase in surveillance activity. One example of the latter is the CAPS (Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening) system, which was first introduced into U.S. airports by the Federal Aviation Authority during the late 1990s and since 9/11 has expanded to CAPPS II - a more stringent, pre-screening system used today.

"We want to get a strong comparative sense, globally, of how personal information flows between individuals and organizations, and increasingly across borders," Dr. Lyon says. "This project will push the debate into the next realm: that of surveillance as 'social sorting', as categorization of people into groups; and determine how outcomes in every day life are related to this personal data processing."

A key component of the project is an international survey that will compare how people in 12 countries respond to and interact with surveillance. Since the notion of "privacy" varies greatly from one country to another, the team expects to find a wide range of responses across different cultural contexts.

The researchers hope that results of their project - which includes plans for a traveling, interactive exhibit, DVD, and CD-ROM, as well as print publications - will help to shape new global policies around handling personal data, and affect how individual firms approach this issue.


Nancy Dorrance, Queen's News & Media Services, 613-533-2869
Lorinda Peterson, Queen's News & Media Services, 613-533-3234

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