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SRT at 50: Surveillance and Social Justice

SRT at 50: Surveillance and Social Justice

Monday October 12 2020

In the continuing series marking the 50th anniversary of the Church of Scotland SRT (Society, Religion and Technology), Eric Stoddart explores surveillance of daily life.

Contact tracing is a part of everyday surveillance. When visiting a restaurant or attending church we need to give details of how we can be contacted should it turn out that we have been in close proximity to a person who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Smartphone apps available in some countries can alert us to possible exposure to the virus. Commitment to others’, not only our own, health means we co-operate with systems that track our behaviour.

In 2017, SRT presented a report to the General Assembly on the social justice aspects of contemporary surveillance. Bio-data was one of the significant benefits the report highlighted. Looking back to early Victorian London and information gathering that established how cholera was transmitted by contaminated water, the report affirmed the value of surveillance in alleviating poor quality living conditions. Nevertheless, the report voiced concerns about protecting individuals’ genetic data today given its value to insurance companies who would be tempted to target premium rates at currently healthy people but who are more likely than others to develop particular diseases.

Contact tracing is a social justice matter. In early July this year, Leicester was subject to a local lockdown in response to a spike in Covid-19 infection rates. Textile factories in the city attracted particular scrutiny regarding unsafe working conditions, before and during national lockdown, and claims of breaches of the minimum wage.

 Across the country as a whole, the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic people demands thorough investigation. Surveillance of the virus has brought social justice issues into the spotlight.

The SRT report also addressed movement across borders, not only at ports of entry but at multiple points in everyday life. People categorised as risky, sometimes on highly dubious inferences from data, can encounter discrimination in crossing thresholds into shopping centres or other premises. During lockdown all of us learned more about borders. We worked out what five miles from our front door encompassed. Entering a shop raised our levels of anxiety. It is salutary to recall what it felt like to be unsure if we were out of place or not. That is the year-round experience of many people who, on grounds of ethnicity, age, economic status, or sexuality, cannot be certain they are welcome at day-to-day borders within towns across the country.

‘Surveillance from the Cross’ was the SRT report’s way of talking about watching that reflects the self-surrendering, caring gaze of Jesus towards the world. Surveillance from the Cross expresses Jesus’ solidarity with all who are under surveillance, particularly those for whom those systems are discriminatory. At the same time, surveillance from the Cross enables Christians to speak positively about technologies of monitoring and data-gathering that contribute to people’s health and wellbeing.

Surveillance will continue to be a significant dimension of public health responses to Covid-19 around the world. A voice of social justice, such as that of the prophet Amos, speaks down through the centuries. He took issue with those ‘who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way’ (Amos 2:7, NRSV). At the very least, Amos confronts us with our priorities. To what extent is monitoring during the pandemic aimed first at benefiting those with the least resources to self-isolate or have the most difficult access to healthcare? In the scramble that will follow when vaccines and treatments become available, how will systems be set up to ensure that those who are poor are not pushed out of the way?

For more information on the work of Church of Scotland SRT, visit 

Eric Stoddart’s next book on surveillance and the common good, The Common Gaze, will be published by SCM in January 2021.