Sociology prof keeps close eye on 'surveillance creep'

Michael Brown

Kevin Haggerty remembers sitting at the dinner table as an undergraduate student having hypothetical conversations with his father, an RCMP officer, about what would happen if, for example, government allowed widespread use of video surveillance to monitor people’s everyday activities.

The hypotheses drawn during those animated conversations varied, but all essentially held a common thread: “I think most people would have taken to the streets.”

Nearly three decades later, Haggerty—now a surveillance expert in the University of Alberta’s Department of Sociology—says society is in the midst of “a world historical transformation in the dynamics of visibility.” He wants to know how it happened—and he has received a financial boon to aid him in his quest.

Haggerty was one of just five Canadian researchers to receive the 2014 Killam Research Fellowship. The two-year, $140,000 prize grants teaching and administrative release to scholars who are engaged in research projects of outstanding merit and widespread interest, so they may pursue independent research.

Haggerty intends to use the fellowship to write a book aimed at a popular audience that attempts to outline the factors that allowed broad surveillance to become a part of everyday life.

“I could almost call the book How Did This Happen? If you went back in time 25 or 30 years, and you told people that all of their main form of communication was going to monitored by the state or corporations and there are going to be cameras everywhere, people would have said there is no way that’s going to happen. Well, 30 years later it’s happened.”

Haggerty says there won’t be a single contributing factor in the arrival of a “surveillance society,” citing a long list that includes post-9/11 fears, complicated generational understanding of privacy, historic technological development, political apathy and, by and large, a failure of the legal system.

“On the whole, a sweep of developments has been monumentally towards more and more surveillance, and the legal system has proved to not be particularly effective at checking that tide,” he said. “I think one of the more eye-opening things is the scope of surveillance; people understand that we live in a society with a lot of monitoring, but the amount of information being collected is unfathomable.”

And just as no one could have predicted the rampant infiltration of surveillance into everyday life, it would have been impossible to forecast the influence Haggerty’s curiosity-driven research is having on the prevailing discussion concerning the place of surveillance in society when he first came to the U of A in the late ‘90s.

“This is a university that knows what it is. It understands how to support researchers and it understands what research is, and that’s not true of all universities,” he said. “I think the university has given me the freedom to follow topics that, when I started out, weren’t hot-button topics.

“However, more recent developments have shown that allowing me to follow my instincts and follow what I believe to be important was crucial.”