Mundanity of Surveillance: Studying Infrastructures and Technologies of Power


The digitization, datafication and bureaucratization of everyday life has led to a rapid increase in data collection, transfer and online archiving. While these abilities contribute to private and public interests of digital companies, states and various groups of people, they also evoke worries about new technological capacities to surveillance and their effects on democratic governance as well as on human rights.

In the last two decades, concerns about surveillance have been theorized under notions, such as ‘surveillant assemblage’ (Haggerty & Ericsson, 2000), ‘surveillance society’ (Lyon 2001), ‘surveillance culture’ (Lyon 2018), ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019) and ‘data colonialism’ (Couldry & Mejias 2019). Especially the recent critical analyses stress power asymmetries prompted by surveillance. On the one hand, surveillance technologies are instrumental in the concentration of power, as the industry of behavioural data is controlled by a handful of mainly US companies and the military-intelligence apparatuses (Mosco 2017, 213). On the other hand, ethnographic studies on privacy suggest that the collateral damage of surveillance practices tends to be the severest among the already under-privileged people, for instance, minorities and the poor (Eubanks 2018).

A prevalent assumption in the contemporary debate is that digital surveillance is transforming social order. In this paper, we argue that this transformation has a longer history, tied to ways in which surveillance has become considered as a mundane, or banal part of everyday life. Given that this change is historical and infrastructural, it is difficult to grasp. Therefore, this paper will draw inspiration from information infrastructure studies (see Bowker & Star 2000), as it seeks to identify digital technologies of surveillance, which have become taken-for-granted. Three interconnected cases of fundamental importance to Finland will be analyzed in the paper: the history of the passport, of the social security number and the introduction of novel intelligence legislation.

Each of these cases connects to distinct sets of mechanisms, or forms of surveillance, which we address in terms of control, care and empowerment. Instead of treating these notions merely as rhetorical devices or discourses, our analysis perceives them in connection to Foucault’s work on technologies of power, including ‘biopower’ (i.e., ‘the biopolitics of population’), ‘disciplinary power’ (i.e., ‘body politic’) and ‘pastoral power of care’ (i.e., welfare policies). The analysis on how surveillance becomes mundane leads to a discussion about moral and political self-reflexivity and resistance, in an environment with conflicting values vis-à-vis the necessity of surveillance.