The Surveillance Effect: How Data doubles destroy lives

To suggest that even you might show up in the RCMP’s police database might surprise us Canadians.  After all, what could they possibly know? You are more than aware that you have had no convictions in your lifetime and that those people that do most likely deserve it. However, we begin to ask ourselves what do they know about you? Do they have information on you from a past police investigation? Were you questioned about a particular friend or loved one who committed a crime? Or perhaps the police have an unproven allegation against you but they just couldn’t find the evidence and you’ve heard nothing since. Furthermore, maybe your neighbors reported you to the police because they felt you were having suicidal tendencies when you were just having a really bad year. It might be scary to suggest that even though you haven’t committed a crime or an indecent act that these kinds of things you’d have liked to keep private are all available in a national database.

It is now known that more than 420,000 people were listed in the RCMP’s Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database while having no conviction in 2005 (Carlson, 2004). This may strike us as alarming considering this number has most likely grown due to the more modern advances in technology, especially as we approach 2015. A Toronto Star analysis revealed that many of the people listed are for mental health issues. Nearly 2,500 people with no conviction registered for attempted suicide and 2,200 people were registered as having a mental instability with no conviction (Carlson, 24).

      In the case of Diane, whose full name is being withheld to protect her from possible retribution, she is one of more than 200 Canadians who came forward to say that their personal or professional lives have been ruined by police check disclosures. This is unsettling since she has never broken the law and has remained a superb citizen working with vulnerable people as a counselor in Toronto (Carlson, 2004).She went through a rather traumatic experience when she ended her relationship with her spouse five years ago. In retaliation her spouse had scratched his legs, arms and neck and then contacted the police to report that she had assaulted him.  She was arrested and charged based on the physical marks on her ex, however, the charges were withdrawn 11 months later (Carlson, 2004).

After completing her education at George Brown College, Diane was working as a counselor in Toronto in October 2012 when she was instructed to provide a vulnerable sector police check. It was required for those working with vulnerable people as it was a condition of her employment (Carlson, 2004). To her dismay it was founded that her withdrawn assault charge involving her ex-spouse was there. As indicated by Diane she exclaimed, “It took many hours of anguish to finally convince the police department that I was not actually a threat to society and that my employment hinged on the fact that I had a clear record” (Carlson, 2004).  What is clear here is that simply having a negative representation in the system whether it’s a police or national database is that it can have a real live effect on a person even though they may have not actually violated the law. Diane had to put forth her own appeal to keep her job. This can be a traumatic for many of us who rely on our jobs especially when those without much financial security in this day and age need income desperately to survive.

As technology begins to advance we are now becoming more and more aware of situations like that of Diane. Once we are in the system it is likely that we shall remain there as it gives institutions such as the RCMP greater power over us. This power that i’m referring to is that of knowledge. Police forces such as the RCMP in Canada kept note of Diane’s prior withdrawn assault charge for a reason. That information could easily have been used against her and would have given police efforts an easier time to determine how to deal with Diane had another altercation of assault occurred. It easily could have been used as evidence in trial. When we look at Haggerty’s and Ericson’s work, The Surveillant assemblage, they reiterate that we’re witnessing the formation of a new type of body which transcends human characteristics and reduces our flesh to pure information ” (D. Haggerty and R.V. Ericson, 613).  This new type of body that Haggerty and Ericson are referring to is a data double.

Rather than being an accurate portrayal of a real individual, our data double will most likely tell a different story, one that we would not like for many to hear. They contain our greatest secrets, latest gossip, as well as past altercations we have had with the law and many other important realms in society. They are indeed useful as they allow institutions to make discrimination’s among populations, but they come at a great price( D. Haggerty and R.V. Ericson, 614).  When we look at Diane’s data double we know that she had a past assault charge and since she was working as a counselor who served many kinds of vulnerable people it would’ve been unwise to let her continue that position. However, the charge was dropped and false as indicated by Diane, yet it still remained in the system labeling her and restricting her job opportunities. If Diane had not taken action to appeal against her past allegations her job would have been stripped from her. We can see how troublesome this is as not breaking the law can still have its consequences for being in the system.

One of the biggest debates going on throughout our societies today concerns privacy issues. We are becoming more aware that the gradual widening of the use of technology has sparked new controversies especially when it comes to privacy concerns. Function Creep is a useful concept which illustrates that technology and systems such as the RCMP’s database have gone beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended. In the case of the RCMP the information that Diane had been charged with went beyond it’s initial purpose and soon labeled her. Her own data double almost stripped her of her job five years after  the original charge was dropped. It not only caused Diane great stress to prove her case that she was a law abiding citizen but furthermore resulted in the invasion of her privacy.

        When we examine George Orwell’s groundbreaking book, 1984, we wonder if we’re only just a few steps away from becoming a society which prioritizes surveillance over the comfort of its own citizens. In the UK, surveillance has already reached a new level. We begin to wonder if this is this just the beginning and if we are heading into a direction where the idea of Big brother may soon materialize. Criminal lawyers are now arguing cases on disclosure of non-conviction records. In Diane’s case the police were free to do what they wished regarding her withdrawn assault charge since there were no rules and no legislation that restricted the RCMP’s use of it’s records (Carlson, 2004). What is perhaps the scariest thing to consider is that this is only one Database system within Canada. Surveillance efforts will continue to evolve since the threat of global terrorism and 911. I hope that some day our privacy will soon be seen as something more important than global surveillance as i feel it is dehumanizing and unnatural. We are heading into a direction that i would like to think is not beneficial for all societies.

Carlson, J. (2014, May 24). 420,000 in police database never convicted: Analysis. Toronto Star. Retrieved from:

Haggerty, K. D., & Ericson, R. V. (2000). The surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 605-622.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Surveillance Effect: How Data doubles destroy lives

  1. This is a detailed, well-written, and passionate post. Good work.

    I am not sure about the usefulness of the ‘Big Brother’ analogy in this case – especially on its own. The idea of ‘Big Brother’ implies a unified, centralized, top-down and hierarchical system of panoptic surveillance, with a visible (if fictional) figurehead at its centre. The practices that you describe in this article are much more discrete, and they are the product of assemblages, rather than unified surveillance systems. Importantly, the whole idea of Big Brother was to remind the public that “Big Brother is Watching You”, with the goal of achieving discipline (in the Foucaultian sense) through surveillance and terror. In this case, the surveillance networks are larger and more detailed than Orwell could have imagined – but also largely faceless. The existence of these records was something discovered by accident.