Function Creep 101: Surveillance Cameras and Social Norms

Jeremy Hunsinger points to this disturbing report about how a dean of students at a Washington high school thought he saw two girls kissing, so he checked the school’s surveillance footage to confirm it. He then proceeded to share what he saw with the parents of one of the girls, who pulled her out of school, and fueled a major controversy.

This is a prime example of function creep – where a technology designed for one purpose (ensuring public safety in schools) is later used for a different purpose (enforcing social norms). As Jeremy notes:

when surveillance is used to enforce stereotypical norms, to fix genders, to make people be other than they wish to be, it becomes something beyond surveillance, beyond mere invasion of privacy, it becomes the will of the state, the will of the community enforced upon the individuals or groups it wishes to repress, suppress, or otherwise control. when surveillance move toward social and political control, and away from mere safety, we have truly given up our freedoms.

I agree with his sentiment, but have to add that in my opinion, surveillance is always about social and political control. “Safety” is just one segment of society’s perceived benefit from the modes of control that surveillance allows.

BTW, check out the comments regarding this story at this local Bowling Green, Kentucky news outlet. If statements like Students should have no expectation of privacy except in the bathroom stalls. If you are not doing anything you are not supposed to,why would you care if you were on camera anywhere?” are indicitve of the typical American, we have a lot of work to do…

1 comment

  1. [Simon Winter had trouble posting this comment, so he sent it to me via e-mail -mz]

    I think another major aspect of this is the erosion of human judgement. Judgement and the subjective “feeling” of being right and wrong is very important for a society. Children and adolescents spend lots of time training their judgement. However, with the increasing use of objective “evidence” like surveillance cameras in everyday life, this judgement is likely to erode.

    -Simon Winter, Växjö, Sweden

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