Surveillance, Algorithms, and Democracy

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Natalie BYFIELD, Sociology & Anthropology, St. John's University, Queens, NY, USA
Marx (1988) and Lyon (1994) have noted for decades the significance of surveillance as an important element in modern states. As such, some of the most relevant questions in surveillance studies are ones that focus on how it proliferates and the impact of its proliferation. Lyon (1994) argued that surveillance expanded with democracy and is likely “the other side of the coin of democracy” (1994:26). Foucault’s (1995) work has articulated the relationships between the state’s surveillance gaze, the sorting and counting of people, and discipline and power. The field of surveillance studies has focused on policing over these same decades that policing, particularly the policing/surveillance of people of color, has risen exponentially. Thus Simone Browne’s (2015) work to put studies of slavery and the construction of blackness at the center of surveillance studies and treat them as part of the “constitutive genealogies” of the field is powerful. This paper builds on the work of Marx, Lyon, and Browne to explore the changing relationship between the state and the private sector as the use of algorithms in policing proliferates. Since 2012, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has contracted with Palantir Technologies to do crime analysis. The company argues that while the data and crime analysis are available to the NYPD, the algorithms it developed are proprietary. As the NYPD reportedly tried earlier in 2017 to move this work in-house—or to another platform—a legal fight erupted between the two institutions. The paper asks the questions, what are the implications for 1) the relationship between the state and the private sector and for 2) freedom and justice when the private sector often outpaces the state in the development of surveillance technologies, often used by the state for the control of and/or the oppression of members of society, particularly racial minorities.