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Surveillance: Neutralization and Counter-Neutralization

Marx, Gary T.


Article en voie de traduction


It may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma of the kind which human ingenuity may not, by proper application resolve.
----Edgar Allan Poe, The Gold Bug

 A central concern for students of criminology is how the law is mobilized (Black 1973). That concern also holds for students of society more broadly interested in norms or rules that are not sanctified in formal law. Cases must come to the attention of social control processors – both the fact that a violation has occurred and the identity of those responsible for it. One way this is happens is the self-report of victims such as a person whose car is stolen. But given the low visibility of many offenses and offenders, a large proportion of violations are not immediately known. Surveillance offers a key means of identification after the fact. It may also be intended as a means of prevention in inducing deterrence –potential violators aware of surveillance engage in self-control.

The advent of La société de sécurité maximale (Marx 2006) and related new surveillance technologies has been accompanied by an array of forms of resistance – behavioral techniques of neutralization and responses to these in the form of counter-neutralization. The former is illustrated by a tack hidden in the shoe, a commonly used means of beating the polygraph, by stepping down on it in response to certain questions. The latter is illustrated by a requirement that subjects remove their shoes.

New technologies rarely enter passive environments of total inequality. Instead, they become enmeshed in complex, pre-existing systems. They are as likely to be altered as to alter.  Professional associations, oversight organizations, and political and social movements affect this, as do the new markets that control technologies create for counter-technologies.

Many factors inhibit the full unleashing of surveillance: logistical and economic limits, competing values, the interpretive and contextual nature of human situations, system complexity and interconnectedness and the vulnerability of those engaged in surveillance to be compromised. Particularly in liberal democratic societies, there is space for resistance, irony and surprise.

The advantages of technological and other strategic surveillance developments may be limited and success (if present) short-lived -- the same holds for new developments to defeat surveillance. Surveillance is a dynamic process involving emergent interaction and developments over time with respect to anti- and pro-surveillance  actions. The former may be directed at a specific application or at the tactic more broadly.  Efforts may be instrumental or non-instrumental.

Non-instrumental forms of resistance can be seen in the sheer contrariness to authority that Foucault (1977) writes of regarding, "a certain decisive will not to be governed."  Scott’s (1985) work on the symbolic and/or non-instrumental expressions of  indignation and rebellion are related.  The contumacious need not be strategic.

There are a limited number of repertoires of surveillance neutralization and counter-neutralization, even though the specifics and settings vary greatly. This limit reflects the directive power of culture and commonalities in the nature and structure of surveillance contexts. There are parallels to Charles Tilly’s (1995) work on repertoires of contention.

The neutralizing actions described below involve direct resistance or avoidance rather than a broad strategic response such as challenging a law or encouraging a boycott. The resistance actions taken by an individual to defeat a given application are often covert in order to maximize effectiveness and/or to avoid suspicion and sanctioning. The goal is to defeat a given use, not to abolish its use.

Table 1 lists twelve techniques of neutralization. These are considered in greater detail in Marx (2009). Related themes are considered in Dupont (forthcoming), and Huey (2009).

Table 1   Twelve Neutralization Moves


find out if surveillance is in operation, and if it is, where, by whom and how


choose locations, times periods and means not subject to surveillance

piggy backing

accompany or be attached to a qualifying object


transferring an authentic result to someone or thing it does not apply to


altering input such that a technically valid result appears but the inference drawn from it is invalid


eliminating or making data inaccessible


involves blocking in that original information is shielded, but goes beyond it to involve deception with respect to factors such as identity and location


rendering the surveillance device inoperable


“just say no” –ignore the surveillance and what it is meant to deter


accounting for an unfavorable result by reframing it in an acceptable way


collusive moves with agents


role reversal as subjects apply the tactics to agents


Taking Off the Shoe:  Neutralizing Neutralization and Beyond

The strategic actions of both watchers and the watched can be thought of as moves in a game, although unlike traditional games, the rules may not be equally binding on all players. The 12 moves above provoke counter responses such as the uncovering moves Goffman  (1972 ) identifies. Agents serious about their work must eternally wonder if the reality they see is the reality it appears to be.

As the countless examples of neutralization suggest, human ingenuity is often richer than the possibilities that can be anticipated and built into the machine. In conflict settings the flexible and creative human spirit so far has some advantages over “dumb” machines with a limited number of programmed responses (at least the first time around).  Yet machines are quick learners, just as some subjects and agents are.  Table 3 identifies 4 counter moves by surveillance agents.

Table 3 Four Counter-Neutralization Moves

Technological enhancements

Creation of uncertainty through repetition, randomization and deception

Multiple means

New rules and penalties


Illustrations of technological enhancements can be seen in drug testing. Most drug tests now immediately take temperature readings – a reading less than 90 degrees is presumed to indicate dilution or substitution. A “drugwipe” test claims to “pick-up where standard drug testing leaves off.” It identifies drug residue on a desktop or other items.

The random application of surveillance can not be easily “gamed”. Consider the search of air travelers or those at borders based not on anything suspicious, but on a table of random numbers or the roving inspections on subways that rely on an honor system for ticket purchases.

Deception, in creating concern that persons and objects are other than they appear to be, is another form of uncertainty. Informers and undercover tactics are the classic deceptive examples of breaking informational borders. Hidden bugs and disguised surveillance cameras in everyday objects such as clocks, smoke detectors, towel dispensers and even Bibles are other examples.

Subjects may encounter repeated applications of the same means. To maximize deterrence, they may be told that there will be repetition, but not when and where. Or, when the emphasis is on apprehension, nothing is communicated. Consider checking the tickets of skiers at the top of a hill to be sure that they did not send their entry ticket down the hill to be used by someone else.

Multiple means can be seen in comparing an individual’s voice, retinal, fingerprint, facial or DNA patterns to those in a data base, along with requiring the possession of passwords and documents. Tying certification directly to the person’s body lessens problems such as stolen identification and passwords. Video cameras aimed at computer users offer an additional means of identification beyond access controls.

Where it is not possible to defeat neutralization via any of the prior strategies, law and policy may combat it by controlling information about tactics, prohibiting and penalizing activities and artifacts, offering rewards or legally compelling cooperation. Required standards for tools and agents may be designed to minimize successful neutralization.

If a tack in the shoe fails because subjects are required to take their shoes off, there are still other ways to create a pain in the posterior for agents through counter counter-neutralization means. Thus for the polygraph, after the addition of sensors to the subject’s chair to combat sphincter contracting, the main “how to beat it” book suggested tongue-biting, a move presumed to be undetectable by such means. (Maschke and Scalabrini 2005).

Once restricted to police, devices for spoofing Caller-Id such that the number displayed is not the number from which the call is made are now publicly available.

In response to police use of lasers for traffic enforcement an anti-laser stealth coating can be painted on headlights which is said to reduce the targeting range for determining speed, giving the driver more time to slow down.

Sellers of anti-drug products claim continual updates (e.g., heat strips for powdered urine to pass the temperature test). In response to aerial surveillance, marijuana growers in national parks have turned to strains that are shorter and grow well in shaded areas, making them less vulnerable to discovery.


Varieties of Acceptance and Resistance

The above concepts for organizing types of resistance and response can permit the systematic analysis of variation for questions such as, “what are the correlates of the various forms of neutralization and counter-neutralization? What are the major interaction processes when neutralization and counter-neutralization are viewed sequentially?”

Yet resistance offers only part of the story. It is one end of a continuum of behavioral responses to surveillance. At the other end is acceptance. A central problem for the field should be exploring factors associated with acceptance or rejection.

This effort in turn needs to take account of the frequent gap between attitudes and behavior. The 12 neutralization tactics above emphasize behavioral rather than attitudinal responses. The varied relations between attitudes and behavior, between internal feelings and what is publicly presented should be eternally problematic for students of interaction and social order.

Neutralization responses are more likely to involve a “feigned” conformity and covert resistance, than direct overt resistance. More common than either of the above is acceptance (whether gladly or out of resignation, ignorance or indifference).

David Lyon (2007) captures the ubiquity and centrality of compliance:

…we tend to take-for-granted certain kinds of surveillance….People key in their PINS, use their passes, scan their RFID entry cards, give out their Social Insurance numbers, swipe their loyalty cards, make cell-phone calls, present their passports, surf the internet, take breathalyzer tests, submit to face iris scans and walk openly past CCTV cameras in routine ways….If people did hesitate, let alone withdraw willing cooperation, everyday social life as we know it today would break down.

Concepts for organizing types of conformity are also needed. Where individuals are aware and have the potential to respond, rarely will anyone be categorically accepting or rejecting.

The variety of surveillance means and contexts and distinctions between attitudes and behavior, overt and covert actions and crossing personal borders by taking from or imposing upon a person that could be studied for acceptance or rejection (and stops in between) make sweeping generalizations unwelcome. Analyzing distinct means (e.g., video, drug testing, biometric id, location monitoring, surveys and application forms and web activity) would likely yield stronger associations than the search for general orientations.  Nonetheless, there are likely patterns that can be studied more systematically.

Robert Merton’s (1957) distinction between attitudinal and behavioral conformity can be useful here. If we differentiate attitudes from behavior and accepting from resisting responses, and ignore ambivalence and fluidity, we have a fuller picture yielding four types of response for any given tool. (Table 3)

1.True conformists

persons who attitudinally and behaviorally accept the surveillance

2.Intimidated (or at least lacking resources or will for neutralization) conformists

persons who attitudinally reject but behaviorally accept the surveillance

3.Reluctant rebels

persons who attitudinally accept but behaviorally reject the surveillance  (e.g., under peer pressure)

4. Rebels


a. True rebels

persons who attitudinally reject the surveillance and overtly try to neutralize it

b. Closet rebels

persons who attitudinally reject the surveillance and covertly try to neutralize it


This table refers to subjects of surveillance. But surveillance agents too show a variety of attitudinal and behavioral responses – varying from loyal agents who believe in what they do and do it conscientiously, to ritualists who do not believe in what they are doing but need the work, to closet rebels who perform with indifference, and even outright (if hidden) cooperation with subjects. While a surveillance agent as a true rebel  is rare and will likely be out of a job if discovered.

Neutralization is a dynamic adversarial social dance involving strategic moves and counter-moves. It has the quality of an endless chess game mixing old and new moves. Those in the surveillance business respond to neutralization efforts with their own innovations which are then responded to in a re-occurring pattern. Whether for agents or subjects, innovations may offer only temporary solutions.

The cat and the mouse continually learn from each other and reiteratively adjust their behavior in the face of new offensive and defensive means.  For example the Department of Defense through its Polygraph Institute offers a 40 hour course to prepare examiners to deter, detect and prevent polygraph countermeasures.

The quality of play might improve or become more sophisticated, but this is within a broad moving equilibrium in which advantages from an innovation are not constant, particularly over time. This is one reason why “the war on …” rhetoric, with the idea of final victory, is inapplicable to much domestic surveillance. A better military analogy lies in escalation and a kind of surveillance arms race captured by  "the see-saw principle" of  new developments balanced by counter-developments.


  • Dupont, Benoît (à venir, 2011) «Les nouvelles géométries de la surveillance: Dispersion et résistance, S. Leman-Langlois, Sphères de Suveillance, Presses de l’Université de Montréal.
  • Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon.
  • Goffman, Erving (1972), Strategic Interaction, New York, Ballantine.
  • Huey, L. (2009) Subverting Surveillance Systems: Access to Information Mechanisms as Tools of Counter Surveillance in  Hier, S. and Greenberg, J . Surveillance: Power, Problems and Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Lyon, D. (2007) Surveillance Studies. Boston: Polity Press.
  • Maschke, George and Gino Scalabrini (2005), Lie Behind the Lie Detector -
  • Merton, R. (1957) Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
  • Scott, J. C. (1985) Weapons of the Weak Everyday forms of peasant resistance.   New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Tilly, C. (1995) Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Tunnell, K. (2004) Pissing on Demand. New York: New York University Press.

Sous la direction de Benoît Dupont et Stéphane Leman-Langlois

Chaire de recherche du Canada en sécurité, identité et technologie:

Chaire de recherche du Canada en surveillance et construction sociale du risque:


ISBN: 978-2-922137-30-9