Tag Archives: Surveillance

Using data doubles & function creeps to explain police databases

When it comes to the privacy of individuals, it is a very touchy topic because people want to be able to go about their daily lives without worrying if anyone is spying or monitoring their activities. The government plays a large role when it comes to the privacy of citizens through surveillance, CCTV cameras, personal identity records etc. Many say that this is an invasion of their privacy and should be outlawed but the government responds by saying that it is essential for the safety and security of all citizens. The Toronto Star news corporation did an investigation on the police to see whether they are recording appropriate and relevant information in their Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) databases. After a lengthy analysis, they found out that in Canada, around 420,000 individuals’ names and other personal information are in police databases even though they have never been convicted of a crime in their life. Although these individuals have never been convicted of a crime, their names appear in the databases for other reasons such as mental illnesses and being charged with a crime; essentially any personal information given to the police during any sort of interaction with them remains in their system regardless of the significance of the incident. It seems unfair to record this information of a person because it attaches a label to them and judges a person’s entire character based on this information. For example, many places require a criminal record check to see if individuals have a clean background; the information in the police databases shows that they are ‘dangerous’ based on crimes that they have never been convicted for; they might not even be posed as a threat at all in fact (The Toronto Star, 2014).

The Toronto Star mentioned a lady named Diane who was wrongly accused of assault on her ex-spouse; as a result, she had great difficulty trying to keep her job as a counsellor, because of a false accusation against her, when a background check was required for her. Although it was a withdrawn assault charge, it still remained in the police database and judged her to be a person who committed crime in the past even though she had done nothing. She finally had her charge removed from the police database after many unsuccessful appeal attempts; unfortunately, many other people remain on the police databases even though they aren’t deemed a threat to society. The CPIC was initially developed to only record personal information of individuals with criminal charges or convictions but now it is being used to store personal information of anyone that interacts with the police, even if they don’t have any charges or convictions against them. Individuals with criminal charges and convictions would usually have the charges removed after a certain period of time but now it is almost impossible to have any sort of information from the CPIC removed, making it very difficult and frustrating for individuals with no criminal past. Some Criminologists say that it’s not necessary to maintain non-convicted records because it is irrelevant and the purpose of the police databases is to only record important information that deems individuals a threat based on convictions (The Toronto Star, 2014).

Haggerty and Ericson discuss the notion of data doubles and function creeps to explain why any piece of information of a person is kept in the police databases regardless of it being irrelevant. Every person has a data double which is a profile of their ‘digital footmarks’ left in electronic information. The data doubles are used by the government and other places to differentiate between categories of individuals for marketing and institutional agenda purposes. For instance, data doubles are used for monitoring individuals known to be a threat or causing civil disobedience in society. Function creeps are another surveillance technique in which it is a process where information gathering procedures are justified and approved for a particular application and are being used for purposes that were not initially designed for. Function creeps is used by the police to ‘leak’ or relay vital information about individuals in the database to places that deal with them in order to assess and evaluate their level of threat. These function creeps may cause problems because they are only designed for a single purpose in which new surveillance techniques can be found in a system that was not originally created for that specific purpose; then again they may be beneficial but it is hard to predict the uses for them in the future (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006).

According to the Toronto Star investigation, the need to record personal information in the CPIC databases is to ensure the safety and security of the public and the police themselves when dealing with individuals on the job. This information is also being recorded into databases for the purpose of data doubles so that the police can easily access it according to the categories that individuals are placed in, when assessing and responding to a situation. These data doubles indicate a reliable prediction towards the assessment and discretion that should be made by police officers towards various individuals with criminal charges and convictions; this is said to simply be in the best interests of the police and the public while looking out for their safety by taking appropriate actions. Furthermore, function creeping will permit the police to use the information in the databases for other purposes than it was originally intended for, in the future; this could be very useful and vital information to have in hand in an emergency situation and whatnot. Critics argue that the CPIC databases are a form of government surveillance and that it is an invasion of people’s privacy because individuals’ personal information is stored in the system and impossible to remove even if they haven’t even committed a crime. All of this personal information stored in databases, along with the concepts of data doubles and function creeping, could potentially mean the difference between effectively and efficiently handling a situation or letting another crime occur when it could have been prevented through these security measures.


Haggerty, K. D., & Ericson, R. V. (2006). The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility. In R.V. Ericson & K. D. Haggerty (Eds.), The new politics of surveillance and visibility (pp. 3–25). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Robert Cribb, Jim Rankin, & Andrew Bailey. (2014, May 25). 420,000 in police database never convicted: Analysis. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/05/24/420000_in_police_database_never_convicted_analysis.html


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The Concepts of ‘Data Double’ and ‘Function Creep’ Applied to the Toronto Star Investigation

Recently, it has been discovered by a Toronto Star analysis, that an astounding number of individuals without any charges or convictions are listed on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) database. Many of those who are on this list have been affected in negative ways because of it. Some of these negative experiences and implications include, being denied a volunteer position within an organization because that one’s name is found to be contained within the CPIC data, an employer finding out that a person’s criminal record is not clean and choosing not to hire him/her as a measure of caution, or not being able to cross the border to the US because one has been labeled as having a , ‘mental instability’ or having made a ‘suicide attempt,’ (The Star, 2014) all of which are things that should not be getting in the way of a person trying to: travel, obtain employment, or give back to their community through volunteer work. Ontario’s privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian even went so far as to say that it ‘ruins lives’ (The Star, 2014).

The RCMP’s reasoning behind collecting and recording this information on individuals, regardless of whether or not they have been charged and/or convicted are all follows: it is done for the safety of the person themselves, the safety of the general public and for the safety of police officers, in the case that they ever come in contact with those people. Sgt. Greg Cox, an RCMP spokesperson stated, ‘The information allows police services to be aware of individuals that may be a danger to themselves or others and assists police in determining appropriate responses or actions to take relative to that individual’ (The Star, 2014).

The question remains, if these individuals have not ever been charged or convicted of an offence, then why are their names contained within the CPIC data? These include people who have: had mental health issues or have threatened or attempted to commit suicide in the past. Even those who have had someone call the police to complain about them, where no charge or conviction resulted, are included (Toronto Star, 2014). Every interaction involving the police is recorded and stored.

CPIC is clearly a form of surveillance, defined by Haggerty and Ericson as, the ‘collection and analysis of information about populations in order to govern their activities’ (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006, p. 3). It is the amalgamation of different technologies of surveillance to create a master source about the many details in an individual’s life. I think Haggerty and Ericson would consider CPIC to be a form of “computerized ‘datavalence'” (as cited in Haggerty and Ericson, 2006, p. 4), in which large amounts of information are being processed and evaluated electronically in order to adhere to the idea of risk management and safety in this particular case.

The concepts of ‘function creep’ and ‘data double’ can help make sense of what appears to be a serious issue for many citizens of the public surrounding the contents of CPIC data. The term ‘function creep,’ is defined as ‘the gradual widening of the use of a technology or system beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended.” (dictionary.com) which is exactly what seems to have happened with the RCMP’s CPIC database. The online CPIC data system was originally created in 1972 for the purposes of recording the personal information of those who had either been charged or convicted of a crime. Those who had been charged would have the charge removed after 5 years, and those who had been convicted would have that information absolved after a certain period of time, depending on the nature of the case (The Star, 2008). The database was intended to be used solely for those reasons, however these original guidelines of are not being adhered to. The RCMP has slowly extended beyond this scope and has started to record data that should not have been recorded in the first place. In addition to that, information about individuals (who don’t have charges/convictions) is not being expunged after a certain amount of time. Anne, a woman who had a bad experience with CPIC data coming back to haunt her, made a powerful statement when she said, ‘The convicted are protected. But these non-conviction record releases definitely violate my constitutional rights to be heard, to defend myself against these false records (The Star, 2014).

This has caused an uproar in many individuals who are having a tough time being accepted into volunteer organizations, getting jobs and even crossing the border without issues arising in regards to their name popping up in CPIC data even though they have not committed a crime but are simply in the database for the sake of ‘surveillance,’ which Haggerty and Ericson define as, ‘the collection and analysis of information about populations in order to govern their activities’ (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006). The CPIC database helps to create what is termed as, a ‘data double,’ a compilation of information about a person from various sources which are normally separate from one another, but once pieced together, form a digital version of the self which is sent to a central location and then dispersed amongst technologies (i.e. computers) in a way that serves the purposes of an institution (Haggerty & Ericson, 2006). In the case of the CPIC database, the primary purpose is said to be that of safety. The problem with this is that an individual’s entire character is being judged and based on a piece of information stored within the database which is causing individuals to experience major inconveniences and frustrations with the system, as has been demonstrated in the results of the Toronto Star analysis.

Haggerty, K. D., & Ericson, R. V. (2006). The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility. In R. V.
Ericson & K. D. Haggerty (Eds.), The new politics of surveillance and visibility (pp. 3–25).
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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Food for Thought: Thinking about Surveillant Assemblages

This week’s class focused on issues related to surveillance, privacy, and the law. We covered a wide range of surveillance practices, from the macro (SIGINT surveillance through the Five Eyes network) to the micro (the implications of signing in to your mykwantlen account). Uniting this conversation were a number of key themes: the rhizomatic nature of surveillant assemblages, the relationship between surveillance and social sorting, the proliferation of fragmentary ‘data doubles’, and the notion of exchanges (privacy for service) as a governing principle of the social relations of surveillance. We also drew on Ericson’s (2007) discussion of counter-law to make sense of some of the forces driving the expansion of surveillant assemblages – in particular, efforts to understand, forestall, and otherwise manage uncertainty. It was a lot of material to cover in one class, but I think we managed it!

Food for Thought:

Today, rather than posing a single question, I want to offer a selection. You may respond to any (one) of the following questions. Regardless of your choice, your response must (1) engage with relevant materials from today’s class, (2) engage with relevant external sources, and (3) adhere to the guidelines set out in your syllabus (in terms of length, citations, etc.). Enjoy!

  1. Draw on a socio-legal theory that we have covered (but not Foucault) to make sense of the expansion of surveillant assemblages outlined by Haggerty and Ericson (2006).
  2. Discuss the merits of the arguments made by the participants in the 2014 Munk Debate on ‘State Surveillance’, and state and support your own position.
  3. Outline the main features of an ideal privacy law (that is, a law governing who may collect and access your personal information, when, under what circumstances, and for what purposes), and explain why these features are appropriate. If you choose to respond to this question, you should spend a few minutes looking into existing privacy laws (in BC and / or Canada).
  4. Respond to the second ‘Critical Thinking Question’ on p. 45 of your syllabus.
  5. Draw on socio-legal theory and the materials we covered today to prepare a response to the following statement: “In terms of surveillance, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.
  6. Write a brief commentary on a one-week ‘snapshot’ of your data double, and discuss the implications that could arise from the linking of some or all of the fragments of this ‘digital trail’.

Posts prepared in response to one of these questions must be submitted before class on December 2.

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