Monthly Archives: February 2015

Social Sorting by Big Brother: The Contemporary History of Mass Surveillance

In the first of a series of occasional pieces by speakers in the Modern & Contemporary History Research seminar series, Dr. Steve Hewitt (Birmingham) reflects on the history of state surveillance ahead of his talk on Wednesday.


Surveillance does not affect everyone equally. Since Edward Snowden made his initial flight to Hong Kong with a treasure trove of documents digitally stuffed in his computer, stories about the surveillance reach of the modern technological state have abounded and continue to appear on a regular basis.


By User:Mattes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Some accounts focus on generalized surveillance on a global scale; others emerge as of particular interest to certain nations. The latter includes the case of Canada and the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) trial involving intercepting Wi-Fi transmissions at a Canadian airport. Another example is GCHQ carrying out intercepts in the United Kingdom without seeking a warrant to do so.

There is a clear fascination with the technology and the scale of the surveillance and the notion that the risk is equivalent for all of us.

This discourse, however, obscures important points. First, the idea of equality in the face of Big Brother’s perpetual gaze in a “panoptic society” is, in some respects, ridiculous. While it is certainly true that all may see their communication intercepted, the key point frequently forgotten in the frenzy of discussion is what happens to the material collected. At this point, the idea of equality breaks down as notions of threat and deviance emerge. A version of what sociologist David Lyon refers to as “social sorting” comes into play.[1] Specifically Lyon argues that:

The key practice here is that of producing coded categories through which persons and groups of persons may be sorted. If personal data can be extracted, combined, and extrapolated in order to create profiles of potential consumers for targeted marketing purposes, then, by a similar logic, such data can be similarly processed in order to identify and isolate groups and persons that may be thought of as potential perpetrators of “terrorist” acts. Such “social sorting” has become a standard way of discriminating between different persons and groups for the purposes of providing differential treatment (whether this is encouraging certain classes of consumer to believe that they are eligible for certain exclusive benefits, for example, through club registration and membership, or facilitating or restricting traffic flow though airports by reference to watch lists and APNR data).[2]

To put it in more real world terms, I as a white Euro-Canadian middle class male, of slightly left-of-centre political views and agnostic religious beliefs, have little to fear from blanket surveillance. Conversely, a change to one or several of those characteristics, such as religious belief, and suddenly a convergence can occur with the characteristics of a marginalized category, which has been mapped onto a “threat” by the structures of power. As a result, this shift can lead to far more intrusive surveillance and direct consequences, as opposed to simply the collection of data.

A double standard exists then, in terms of who is generally on the receiving end of intrusions from the state versus what actually gets public attention. One can even see such dynamics at work around the Snowden leak. When David Miranda, the husband of journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the Snowden story, was detained in 2013, under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, for several hours of questioning at Heathrow Airport, there was a widespread outcry among the media, civil libertarians, and politicians. Receiving far less attention or response was a subsequent Guardian story revealing that 56,000 people had been detained the same way in 2012. It is not hard to guess at the dominant characteristics of those tens of thousands who found themselves detained for questioning under Schedule 7.

Accordingly then, certain groups and individuals have long been subjected to more intrusive surveillance and very serious consequences because of their ideology, race and ethnicity, gender or sexuality, religion or nationality – or some combination of these factors. At one time during the Cold War such attention was generated under the official rubric of counter-subversion. Since 9/11, meanwhile, the justification has become counter-terrorism or counter-extremism.

Hence, the phenomenon is not new, although arguably, thanks to technology, the scale of what the state can collect has vastly increased.

[1]David Lyon, “Surveillance as social sorting: Computer codes and mobile bodies,” in David Lyon, ed, Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Automated Discrimination (New York: Routledge, 2005) at 16.

[2] David Lyon, “Airport Screening, Surveillance, and Social Sorting: Canadian Responses to 9/11 in Context” (2006) 48:3 Can J Corr 404.


New funding available for MA study at Birmingham!

Birmingham Masters Scholarship scheme
The University has launched a new HEFCE-funded scholarship scheme which has enabled us to offer 224 £10,000 scholarships across the University. There are specific criteria for these scholarships, namely that students must be:
·         Domiciled in the UK or EU
·         Progressing from an undergraduate course for which they were charged the higher tuition fee
·         Studying full-time or part-time for a maximum of two years
·         Undertaking a Masters course in an eligible subject; all CAL programmes are eligible
·         From a group that is evidentially under represented among the institution’s taught-Masters population, e.g. those who attended a state school/college; have been in receipt of a student loan; participated in a widening participation scheme at undergraduate level; entered university from a care background; have been in receipt of Disabled Student Allowance or are registered disabled; or come from a home where neither parent attended university.
Application deadline: 23.59 on Tuesday 31 March 2015

More info on other funding for MA study is here:

College of Arts and Law scholarships
This year there are three College scholarship schemes, all of which are open to both UK/EU and international students and those studying full- or part-time:
·         Doctoral scholarships, open to applicants across the College. Scholarships cover tuition fees and maintenance. Deadline: 4pm, Friday 27 March 2015
·         M-level scholarships, open to applicants in all Schools except Law (as there are specific LLM scholarships). Scholarships cover tuition fees at UK/EU rates. Deadline: 4pm, Friday 24 April 2015
·         Distance learning bursaries, which are one-off awards for distance learning MRes, MA by Research and PhD programmes. These are set at £2,000 for UK/EU students and £3,000 for international students. Deadline: 4pm, Friday 24 April 2015
Other information
There are a number of subject-specific scholarships available, plus other awards offered at University level.  Prospective students should go to the funding database so they can get a clearer picture of everything that is available to them:
Please spread the word!

Spring 2015 Week 8 Seminar: Steve Hewitt: ‘”Spotted throughout with Red”: Canadian State Surveillance and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1969-1988.’

The Week 8 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 4 March 2015, at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library. It will be delivered by:

Steve Hewitt (Birmingham)


Abstract: Drawing on Canadian state security records, the problematic nature of which will be discussed, this paper examines the tactics and strategy used by the largely all-male police against the Women’s Liberation Movement between 1969 and 1988.  It argues that ultimately the police’s own lack of clarity about what it was pursuing in terms of subversion combined with external factors, including the nature of the movement it spied upon, not just weakened its surveillance campaign but ultimately helped undermine counter-subversion as a dominant characteristic of the Canadian security state. Finally, the paper will argue that in an era of WikiLeaks and the revelations of Edward Snowden, it is crucial to recognize that certain groups and individuals disproportionately experience surveillance, both in the past and in the present.

All are welcome and there will be drinks.

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Spring 2015 Week 7 Seminar: Carolyn Steedman: ‘A Lawyer’s Letter. Everyday Uses of the Law in early Nineteenth-century England’.

The Week 7 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 25 February 2015, at 16:15 in Arts Lecture Room 8 (note change of room). It will be delivered by:

Professor Carolyn Steedman (Warwick) steedman

All are welcome and there will be drinks.

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Reading Week: Graphs of Death in the Archive

As there is no research seminar this Reading Week, here is a link to one of those archival breakthrough moments, to keep all our MA students inspired as they look ahead to dissertations.

Spring 2015 Week 5 Seminar: Richard Dunley: The Royal Navy and Offensive Planning, 1914-15

The Week 5 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 11 February 2015, at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library. It will be delivered by:

 Richard Dunley (The National Archives)

The Royal Navy and Offensive Planning, 1914-15

Abstract: Early twentieth century Britain was a maritime and imperial power ill prepared to fight a large continental conflict. Throughout the pre-war period there were a number of discussions of grand strategy in the event of war with Germany. However, no decisions were reached. Even after the British Expeditionary Force was committed to France in 1914 there was still a serious debate as to the type of war Britain should fight. This paper will look at the plans drawn up by the Royal Navy to follow a “British Way in Warfare” in executing the conflict against Germany. In particular it will explore the differing and at times contradictory plans to engage in littoral warfare against the German North Sea coast and those seeking to break into the Baltic. In doing so it will shed light on the difficult relations between the Admiralty and the rest of the government and the tensions within the Admiralty in particular those between Lord Fisher and Winston Churchill.

All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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