New technologies have aided the rise of surveillance deputies. // gorodenkoff

law and the looky-loo

Demonstrated by the popularity of Amazon’s Ring app, people are increasingly relying on private-sector technologies for safeguarding their properties and ensuring personal safety. Amazon profits—and its technologies enable law enforcement to access more surveillance content from more people more easily than ever before. Scholars Sarah Brayne, Sarah Lageson, and Karen Levy term this phenomenon, wherein “ordinary people use their labor and economic resources to engage in surveillance activities on behalf of the state,” surveillance deputization.

In Law & Society Review, the authors use contemporary empirical examples to hypothesize the conditions that contribute to surveillance deputization. The first condition occurs when the interests of the state and the civilian converge. Such scenarios can range from instances in which civilians willingly provide information to state actors to situations in which state actors actively encourage and offer incentives for civilian participation in the surveillance project. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio advised residents to inform on individuals and businesses who were not participating in social distancing. A second condition arises when “law institutionalizes surveillance deputization or fails to clarify its boundaries.” Take, for instance, Texas’ S.B. 8. The legislation was crafted to “circumvent” Roe v. Wade by deputizing ordinary people to penalize those seeking abortions by filing lawsuits against anyone aiding them in the process, including doctors, nurses, and even Uber drivers. Finally, the conditions for surveillance deputization are right when digital tools incentivize the voluntary participation of civilians. For instance, the authors note how applications like Nextdoor provide relatively inexpensive platforms for “responsibilized citizens” to engage in consumption practices that produce surveillance data.

As technologies facilitate the escalation of private data collection and businesses identify strategies to capitalize on this trend, the frameworks presented in this paper enhance our understanding of the ways peer surveillance becomes a desirable extension of both state and corporate surveillance.