Soft Surveillance: Mandatory Voluntarism and the Collection of Personal Data

Soft Surveillance: Mandatory Voluntarism and the Collection of Personal Data

In Truro, Massachusetts, at the end of 2004, police politely asked all male residents to provide a DNA sample to match with DNA material found at the scene of an unsolved murder. Residents were approached in a non-threatening manner and asked to help solve the crime. This tactic of rounding up all the usual suspects and then some is still rare in the United States for historical, legal, and logistical reasons, but it is becoming more common. The Truro case illustrates expanding trends in surveillance and social control.

There is increased reliance on “soft” means for collecting personal information. In criminal justice contexts these means involve some or all of the following: persuasion to gain voluntary compliance, universality or at least increased inclusiveness, and emphasis on the needs of the community relative to the rights of the individual.

As with other new forms of surveillance and detection, the process of gathering the DNA information is quick and painless, involving a mouth swab, and is generally not felt to be invasive. This makes such requests seem harmless relative to the experience of having blood drawn, having an observer watch while a urine drug sample is produced, or being patted down or undergoing a more probing physical search.

In contrast, more traditional police methods, such as an arrest, a custodial interrogation, a search, a subpoena, or traffic stop, are “hard.” They involve coercion and threat to gain involuntary compliance. They may also involve a crossing of intimate personal borders, as with a strip or body-cavity search. In principle such means are restricted by law and policy to persons there are reasons to suspect, and thus they implicitly recognize the liberty of the individual relative to the needs of the community.

Yet the culture of social control is changing. Hard forms of control are not receding, but soft forms are expanding. I note several forms of this, from requesting volunteers based on appeals to good citizenship or patriotism to using disingenuous communication to profiling based on lifestyle and consumption to utilizing hidden or low-visibility, information collection techniques.

The theme of volunteering as good citizenship or patriotism can increasingly be seen in other contexts. Consider a Justice Department “Watch Your Car” program found in many states. Decals that car owners place on their vehicles serve as an invitation to police anywhere in the United States to stop the car if they see it being driven late at night.

A related form of voluntarism involves using citizens as adjuncts to law enforcement by watching others. Beyond the traditional Neighborhood Watch, we can note new post-9/11 programs, such as a police-sponsored C.A.T. EYES (Community Anti-Terrorism Training Initiative), and efforts to encourage truckers, utility workers, taxi drivers, and delivery persons to report suspicious activity.

There also appears to be an in...