John Gilliom

The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work

The following is an excerpt from SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society (University of Chicago Press, 2012), by John Gilliom and Torin Monahan. Click here to buy a copy of the book. 

It was the moment Anna had been dreading. Ever since a coworker logged in to Anna’s computer and sent the boss an e-mail saying, “I’m now in the office,” she’d known it might come back to bite her. And it did. Here she was, standing in front of him, tears welling, trying to explain that she didn’t tell her coworker to lie about what time she arrived. The boss didn’t care, and he certainly didn’t believe her. After all, his computer system had discovered the “fact” of the erroneous e-mail, and he was pleased with himself for unearthing a contradiction in Anna’s record.

Because she typically got to the office at 6:00 a.m., well before any of the managers, Anna was supposed to send the boss an e-mail, and its time stamp would serve as a clock-in time. Her coworker thought she was doing her a favor by clocking her in when she was late for work. But the boss was suspicious—and maybe had way too much time on is hands. So he logged in to the electronic system for the building’s parking garage, pulled up the time she swiped her parking card, and compared that with the time posted on the e-mail. Discrepancy discovered! The e-mail was sent forty-five minutes before Anna’s car entered the garage.

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Can We Talk About Surveillance?

This post first appeared on the Gadflyer.com.

There's been a lot of chatter about surveillance in the last few days, but nothing like this:

An Appalachian Ohio Welfare Mother:

"It's as close to a prison that I can think of."

A Seattle Electrician:

"It's a degradation of human beings, damn you."

Another Appalachian Ohio Welfare Mother:

"I don't like everybody knowing me too good."

When Americans talk about surveillance, I hear them say things that are more tangible and moving than what we hear when journalists, politicians, and policy wonks talk about our rights to privacy. I hear the nonprofessionals say things that do a better job of helping me understand what can be wrong with constant watching.

Don't get me wrong, I cherish the idea of a legal right to privacy. But I also long for a free-wheeling American debate about our unfolding surveillance society. To have such a debate, I think we need to freshen up the language.

People frequently put their feelings about surveillance in the terms of very personal affronts, humiliations, fears, and anger.

As I've written elsewhere, some of the women we talked to about living with surveillance brought up privacy concerns, but more spoke directly and personally about how they were frightened, degraded, and really pissed off. My own regrettable encounter with invasive government snooping left me frightened, degraded, and really pissed off. Talking about surveillance as a "privacy violation" is like talking about starving children as "juvenile nutrition deficiencies."

To bring the edge back into our national conversation about surveillance, we need to figure out how to talk about it in terms that actually connect to the experience.

So here's a fun activity for you to try at home. Grab a friend and talk about what it is that bugs you about surveillance: eavesdropping, voyeurs, drug tests, the selling of your cell-phone records and credit card data, and, oh yes, the Bush wiretapping initiative. The only rule is "Don't say the P word." If anyone does say "privacy," make them pay a quarter, not do a shot, or undergo some other relatively humane deprivation. See what happens when you leave the official vocabulary behind.
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