Surveillance studies: a cross-cultural approach

Surveillance Studies Summer Seminar (SSSS’09) | Report

by Liliane da Costa Nascimento*

I have been researching the relation between surveillance and social networking websites for the past two years. My initial motivation came from the realization that although institutions were effectively using people’s data for their economical value, social network users were willing to provide all kinds of information about their lives through their profiles. This led me to raise the following questions: Can surveillance be desired? What justifies the use of the term ‘surveillance’ to refer to practices of mutual watching, friendship and subjectivity building which take place on these websites? Finally, I conducted a quantitative and qualitative experiment in five Latin-American countries plus Canada to understand the patterns of self-revelation among different groups of Facebook users.

The main contribution of Surveillance Studies Summer Seminar (SSSS’09) to my work was the way in which it helped me understand how surveillance operates in Brazil as compared to other countries. As it is known, the imperative of security is a strong force driving projects associated with the use of surveillance technologies in developing countries. My experience in the seminar made me consider how security constraints can also play a role in the process of self-revelation at social networking websites. Mexico can be quoted here as an example. In June 2008, when Fernando Marti, the son of a famous Mexican business man, was kidnapped and murdered, there were rumors that the kidnappers had used Facebook to gather information about the victim’s family habits.[1] While it has made Mexicans afraid of posting too much personal information on their profiles, it is interesting to notice that in Brazil, in spite of violence, people still post considerable amounts of information about their daily routines to their Orkutprofiles. This would be an issue worth investigating.

Finally, this experience helped me contrast the feeling of insecurity experienced in my country with the reality of developed countries. As it is known, nowadays the random victimization discourse reinforced by the media and private security companies is associated to the process of social segregation that reinforces pre-understandings of people and places, of what is dangerous or safe. This process plays an important role in our reality, as in many developed countries. However, it is fundamental to emphasize that crime is a real and probable threat in Brazil. Although what really matters is how different actors employ these facts to produce discourses that can justify and help reinforce feelings of insecurity in different countries, when it comes to Brazil, we can not deny that, to some extent, the probability of crime happening alters the meaning the word ‘insecurity’ assumes in our daily lives. Hence, understanding the particularities of our context is an important way to develop surveillance studies in Brazil, considering how the pressure towards modernization and the process of globalization are related to the use of these technologies in the country and how its employment often represents a high tech solution to problems that can not be solved in this way.


* Master’s in Communication and Culture – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil. Surveillance Studies Network Global Scholar 2009.

[1] I would like to thank fellow seminar participant Jimena Figueroa for her comments about how this case has influenced the way people use Facebook in Mexico.