The Psychology Produced by Surveillance

Read Part One.

Recently, a proposal was brought to Berkeley City Council concerning an alleged crime problem, for which a number of technological responses were offered. Some meetings were held to convince neighborhood people that surveillance technologies, cameras and license plate readers, were necessary to help prevent crime. A few shootings had occurred which the police guessed were gang related, and one guy in South Berkeley fired off a couple of rounds at a car, the way the cops do when they want to stop a driver from leaving. As Christmas approached, a wave of “smash and grab” robberies occurred. But they were focused on fancy stores, not low income neighborhood parks. Crime shifts its class orientation with the seasons.

The media response amounted to fear-mongering: “We must hire more police, and institute more surveillance, in order to protect ourselves.”

When surveillance provides both a step toward protection and a mitigation of public fear, it tells us what the crime problem is not. It is not white collar crime (robbing the public till). It is not the crime of industrial pollution nor the production of greenhouse gases (which kill while also threatening the planet). It is not the crime of evicting low income people from their homes in order to raise the rent while contributing to inflation (which functions as a wage cut for working people). It is not the crime of police shooting people on the street, as happened to Sean Monterrosa and Jacob Blake and hundreds of others each year.

And it is not the crime of rape. Rape rarely occurs in public. In Philadelphia, on Oct. 13, 2021, a man sexually assaulted a woman on a train, and the half dozen people witnessing it could only think of recording the event on their cellphones. Did they fear distracting the man? Or did they just buy the police assurance that surveillance will stop crime?

Cameras in a public park, whether they record any unknown shooters or not, by their existence will code the shooter they search for as black, and be used to criminalize communities of color. Cameras in the cellphones of a rape audience will assist in the disparagement of women, and render the continual violence against them a form of roadshow.

A study in the use of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) in Piedmont, CA, found it had negligible effect on crime rates (“Efficiency of Automated License Plate Reader Hits in Piedmont, California,” by Jonathan Hofer; The Independent Institute, Oakland, CA). Nevertheless, the police assert that License Plate Readers, because technology is not racist, will make for more equitable traffic stops (seriously?). It is as if their recognition of their on-going racial bias problem would automatically produce an alleviation of it (in the sense that automaticity is the attraction of technology). The Berkeley police obtained the ALPR technology in 2016. By 2019, their own data showed an absence of any real mitigation of their racial bias problem. In other words, the bias exists in the operator, not in the technology. (Duh!)

The Essence of the Surveillance State

The issue before us is not the technology, and not any theory of policing, but the consequences of surveillance and the surveillance state. When the police demand the technology, they do it under cover of fighting crime. But if this merely hides their modes of social control, then it is a scam. So what is the real focus of surveillance?

If we look back at the inception of surveillance and policing, we find it in the colonies, in what was to become the US. “Surveillance” first appears in the slave patrols. Their purpose was to discover and halt escaping bond-laborers, and similarly to discover and destroy organized efforts of opposition against their oppression (aka rebellion). Rebellion is anything that steps outside or against the structures of oppression and exploitation. One of its universal demands is political recognition for the humanity of the oppressed. The freedom sought by the enslaved was always a proclamation of one’s humanity. Labor unions were originally forms through rebellion; they sought to “escape” from factory ownership autocracy, and to gain honor for the crafts and labor they performed. Outlawed when they first replaced the guild system, they were later regulated by various laws (e.g. Taft-Hartley and Smith Acts) by which they were “watched,” and tamed. Community autonomy and human identity are forms of escape from the corporate state and its structure of managerial (policing) control.

The civil rights movements were rebellions against the de-humanizations of racial segregation and white supremacy. Today’s surveillance policing (aka the surveillance state) is designed to roll back the gains of the civil rights movements, and to criminalize the humanizing communality that provided the leadership in the fight for those gains. Insofar as those movements provided escape from Jim Crow oppression for many, the surveillance police have sought to recapture them through mass incarceration.

The slave patrols were not a form of policing that used surveillance. They were a system of surveillance that performed itself as policing. Their purpose was not to stop crime, or arrest possible criminals (the enslaved were needed as laborers). Their purpose was to “watch” for signs of escape or organized resistance against plantation conditions, and terrorize the enslaved into acceptance. This relation is still the essential nature of surveillance and policing today. The violence and criminalization against black people is a form of terrorism, a suppression of rebellion against impoverishment and disenfranchisement.

Rebellion doesn’t necessarily involve changes in property relations, but it always demands surcease of autocracy and dehumanization. Thus, surveillance policing and its campaigns of criminalization are always a tacit recognition that systematic oppression and injustice exists, and has created a threat of rebellion. It deals with those who fight for their autonomy (humanity) and survivability (community), for justice (racial equity) and democracy (voting rights), as criminals. In the process, the state’s own injustices get covered up.

Forms of criminality have even been invented for the purpose of surveiling and criminalizing rebellion. The “war on drugs” was for outlawing the counter-culture and the autonomy of communities of color. That was why it attacked users rather than traffickers.

Today, the police assume black criminality — even in calls for assistance — in order to criminalize the daily life of people of color. Not all crime is a rebellion against social or economic oppression. But all surveillance will be an attempt to criminalize those in political opposition to oppression.

The Current Surveillance State

For those watched by the surveillance state (the civilian Panopticon), the psychological effects are deep, and injurious. They can take the form of: 1) one’s alienation from others; 2) the feeling that one inhabits an unlivable yet inescapable political situation; and 3) a desire for stasis, a livability devoid of opportunity (which becomes dangerous). One longs for a social framework in which the presence of family and friends would be both possible and enough. Situations that require solidarity or common agreement or social activity (even to correct injustices) become threats. Self-regimentation becomes a constant force for conformity.

Yet, there is often rage against the violation of personhood – black rage against unceasing white attention (watching), for instance. On the other hand, when someone says, “I have nothing to fear from it; I’m not doing anything wrong,” that person is rehearsing precisely the presumed and enforced rules of self-discipline. The idea that “I’m not doing anything wrong” is a way of ignoring the consciousness of being “the watched.” Surveillance does not duplicate the aloneness of imprisonment. But it creates a partial aloneness of non-freedom, the aloneness of being an object in someone’s eyes, those who see one through hidden powers of control.

The contradiction between the need for others and the fear of their presence engenders a schizophrenic existence (aka dual consciousness). One is conscious of oneself, and conscious of being the object of another consciousness. One has to refuse to see the surveillance in order to not see oneself as watched. However, to refuse to see oneself as watched is already to have seen the watching that one is trying to refuse. It is to set one’s dual consciousness in internal conflict with itself. Under such “schizie” stress, police accounts of crime and the alleged “safety” provided by police violence, often seem to bring psychological relief.

A Serious Political Exclusionism

Technology can be used to enhance communications between people. When it does, it can serve beneficial purposes. But when it is used by a surveillance state for the purpose of collecting data or constructing a record on persons, it becomes a form of exclusion. We see this clearly in the case of police radio communication encryption, as well as with license plate readers.

One of the primary sources of police violence is police insensitivity or inability to deal with troubled people except as criminals. Even when called on for assistance (a civil problem, for instance, or an episode of emotional crisis), police responses manage to produce tragedy. In light of the growing awareness of police brutality, organizations have formed to deal with matters humanely (Copwatch, for instance). If civilian mediators or mental health specialists could be present (or even be first responders), perhaps the violence ensuing from police obsession with control could be curbed. Those thinking along those lines have come to depend on access to police radio communications for information that something is happening, and that perhaps someone needs assistance or protection from the police.

The ability to actually save a life, or prevent a person’s arbitrary criminalization, marks an important example of civilians entering the political field as democratic engagement. Should the police encrypt their radio communications, it would be a direct exclusion of these efforts from local political involvement. It would also imply that the police do not want “witnesses” to how they deal with people, how they exercise their impunity.

Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR)

ALPRs, when used for “crime prevention” rather than traffic control, carry the arbitrarity of surveillance to a higher level. It reaches a degree of political disconnect of government from the people. Discovering a car in a particular place should not indicate criminal activity, but it does for the police. Indeed, in 1959, the arbitrarity of collecting license plate numbers in a predefined area led to a Stanford biology professor committing suicide. The FBI had taken down even license plate numbers in a three block radius of a folk music concert in downtown Manhattan, and sent a list of names from that collection to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (a political arm of Congress that functions solely as a means of political surveillance). This professor was in the area, but not at the concert, and the threat of his losing his job because called to that committee drove him to distraction. It wasn’t technology that led to this professor’s death, but the state’s strategy of surveillance, its operational inquisition.

In 2016, after Berkeley granted the BPD approval for ALPRs, a woman was falsely associated with a criminal event through her license plate’s proximity to it. She was investigated, in the process of which she lost her job (though no charges were ever filed). As a result, she ended up homeless.

The technological separation of government (police) from people is double in the use of ALPRs. Surveillance is not of people but of cars. Both the technology and the car constitute concrete separations from governance. Thus, the disconnect between people and governance is multiplied and thus magnified. In the case of the professor, it combines the psychological violence of surveillance with the autocracy of police impunity. As with all such disconnect, there is both opportunity and inducement for governmental abuse. This suggests that all surveillance represents a paradigm of political exclusion, and an arena for abuse of power. It is not the technology that produces abuse, but the power it gives the police, or the state.

And conversely, the abuse to which surveillance can lend itself points to the inherent violence in surveiling. An autocratic state and surveillance policing are each essential characteristics of the other.


In summary, the psychological purpose of surveillance is social control. While it may insist on being clandestine, it expects the societal response to be self-regimentation. It is the culture of self-regimentation that leads city councils to restrict public comment and input to one or two minutes per person, the acceptance of which constitutes a silencing of people.

The escalation of surveillance is anti-democratic in two ways. It represents a general sense of political exclusion from governance. And it represents a valorization of impunity and an autocratic approach to people. It implies that all technological mediation between government and people is exclusionary, substituting machinic management for political dialogue. When a City Council makes policy while excluding from the process those who will be affected by that policy, it is deploying and legitimizing that machinic nature of management. We see that often in the way City Councils make policy on the homeless, consistently excluding the homeless themselves from the process. Similarly, communities clamoring for affordable housing are excluded from decisions concerning housing developments (“input” does not amount to inclusion).

The political issue that all surveillance raises is that of exclusion and inclusion from the workings of governance. The machinic

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.