Keeping tabs on personal data

Surveillance affects everyone’s life, sociology professor says

David Lyon won the 2008 to 2010 Killam Research Fellowship for his work in surveillance research.
David Lyon won the 2008 to 2010 Killam Research Fellowship for his work in surveillance research.

For Queen’s professor David Lyon, keeping an eye on things is a way of life.

“I don’t see surveillance negatively,” he said. “It isn’t seen automatically as a sinister or socially negative phenomenon. It happens in all institutions and encompasses everything we deal with on a daily basis.”

Lyon’s the director of the Surveillance Project, an interdisciplinary and international research initiative based at Queen’s. He said the project researches everything from personal data stored by Facebook, national ID systems and biometric passports, which use data such as fingerprints to identify people.

“Surveillance is an everyday, live process,” he said. “Everyone is affected by it. It’s not so much Big Brother or tired metaphors … as social sorting. It places everyone in a spectrum.”

Lyon said social sorting puts people in different categories based on criteria such as age, gender or race, in order to study or treat them differently. He said the assessment of a person’s “risk threat level”—which assesses someone’s likelihood to commit a terrorist or dangerous action—done by airlines was an example of how people can be sorted.

The Project looks into why modern organizations depend so heavily on personal data analysis, how new surveillance technologies are shaped and what impacts those technologies have on different groups of people—whether racial, age-based or otherwise—Lyon said.

As the director of Project Surveillance, Lyon works with people at Queen’s and from around the world, co-ordinating various branches of the research team. Although he said he “runs the show” mostly through e-mail, he tries to carve out some time each day for his own research and writing.

Lyon said the project works with different organizations such as Privacy Commissions, Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. They work and conduct studies together to get the data necessary for the project’s studies.

He’s also the editor of a journal, Surveillance and Society, and has been involved with the publication of 20 books, either as author or editor, which have been translated into 13 different languages.

Lyon got both his BSc and his PhD from Bradford University in England. During the 1970s, his work focused on historical sociology and the secularization processes in the modern world. In the early 1980s, Lyon began researching the sociology of developing technologies.

As he delved further into the material, Lyon said he became drawn to government processing and use of personal data. Since 9/11, his research has included airport security, urban surveillance and national identification systems.

Lyon said the publication of his book Electronic Eye in 1994 was a starting point in his career in sociology. In the book Lyon looked at how surveillance influences social order. He began working with people who were concerned with the negative aspects of surveillance.

“It set the scene for me,” he said. “It was the milestone in my work.”

Lyon has taught a fourth-year seminar on surveillance at Queen’s for 18 years as well as a variety of other sociology courses such as the sociology of religion and communication and information technology.

In 2005, Lyon became a Queen’s Research Chair and in 2007, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association Communication and Information Technology Section. Lyon was also the recipient of the Killam Research Fellowship from 2008 to 2010.

Lyon said the fellowship is an excellent research opportunity, but requires the recipient to stop teaching during the two-year fellowship period—something he has mixed feelings about.

“I love teaching,” he said. “I feel, however, that it is a huge privilege to be able to focus on research and not have other demands. It’s very hard to do that when you’re teaching.”

Before receiving the award, Lyon said the best way to balance teaching and research was to integrate the two.

“Teaching informs the research and research informs the teaching,” he said. “If I can’t communicate what I teach well enough, it means I have to modify the way I do my research.”

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