Cell Phones, Surveillance, and the State

Cell Phones, Surveillance, and the State

Monitoring Daily Life

Every day, we are identified, monitored, and tracked. Supermarket loyalty cards record our purchases, online data collectors record our mouse clicks, airlines record our travels. These records of our activities are analyzed to create statistical knowledge, and that knowledge is used to construct the world we live in and our place in that world. New brands are created in response to newly discovered market trends. Ad campaigns are designed with a specific demographic in mind, and the ads are delivered only to those individuals who fit the demographic. “Normal” travel patterns are discovered, and deviants from that normalcy are subjected to greater scrutiny at the airport. These practices raise issues of personal privacy, in that they make each individual’s actions visible. They also raise issues of discrimination because the practices are primarily about the creation and differential treatment of social groups. More important, though, they are issues of knowledge and power. Who, in our society, has information about others, about the world, and how do they use that knowledge?

Some argue that increased surveillance is the inevitable result of galloping strides in computing and communication technologies and that we, as individuals and as a society, have only the power to succumb. As Scott McNeally, CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously said, “You have zero privacy now-get over it.” But this view glosses over the point: systems of surveillance, like all technologies, are created by human actors, operating with specific goals, with specific resources, and in specific historical contexts. We can consider one salient example: the systems that today make it possible to locate and track mobile phone users. We can see where it came from, what actions brought it about, by whom and in what historical conditions. We can show how the resulting infrastructure mediates social power, and how activists can intervene in the process.

Today the United States has at least 130 million cell phone users. All are subject to increasingly precise tracking. The infrastructure that supports such tracking has evolved rapidly through a series of technical, legal, and political mutations, all stemming from the choices of highly interested actors. The resulting configuration of laws, networks, and corporate interests determines who is able to use the phone system to gather information about the mobility, not only of individuals, but of the population as a whole.

It is worth taking a hard look at how those choices were made, and who gained and who lost from them.


It has always been technically necessary to locate mobile phones. The phone company has to know where you are in order to route calls to you. Whenever your cell phone is on, it’s emitting little “I am here” signals. The nearest cell tower picks up these signals and informs the network where to send incoming calls. At this stage, thou...