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Surveillance as casework: supervising domestic violence defendants with GPS technology

Peter R. Ibarra & Oren M. Gur & Edna Erez

Published online: 27 September 2014 # Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

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Abstract Academic discussion about surveillance tends to emphasize its proliferation, ubiquity, and impact on society, while neglecting to consider the continued relevance of traditional approaches to human supervision, an oversight insofar as surveillance is organized through practices embedded in justice system-based casework. Drawing from a multi-site study of pretrial personnel utilizing global positioning system (GPS) technology for domestic violence cases in the U.S., a comparative analysis is offered to illustrate how the handling of a “problem population” varies across commu- nity corrections agencies as they implement surveillance regimes. In particular, the study finds that surveillance styles reflect whether an agency is directed toward crime control and risk management, providing treatment and assistance, or observing due process. These programmatic thrusts are expressed in how officers interact with offenders as cases, both directly and remotely. In contrast to the ambient monitoring of environments and populations through data-banking technologies, the interactive surveillance styles described in the present study highlight the role of casework in surveillance.


Surveillance has become pervasive as information systems that document people’s quotidian activities have multiplied [49]. These systems collect steadily increasing streams of personal information that are stored in unevenly regulated, coordinated, and accessible data banks, to be tapped into on an “as needed” basis by market- and government-based actors.1 The assembly and retrieval of these digitized data reflect the institutionalization of surveillance as an ordinary and “ubiquitous” feature of

Crime Law Soc Change (2014) 62:417–444 DOI 10.1007/s10611-014-9536-4

1These data banks need not be remotely located; for example, “smart phones” provide veritable troves of banked data (cf. [69]).

P. R. Ibarra (*): O. M. Gur: E. Erez Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., BSB 4022 (M/C 141), Chicago, IL 60607, USA e-mail: pibarra@uic.edu

O. M. Gur Department of Criminal Justice, Pennsylvania State University, Abington College, Abington, PA 19001, USA



contemporary life [28]. Such ambient surveillance entails the kind of data collection and information management that occurs routinely, silently, and unobtrusively when, for example, visiting web sites, swiping ID cards upon entry to a secured facility, dialing telephone numbers, having one’s image captured on closed-circuit television (CCTV), carrying credit cards containing radio frequency (RF) ID tags, or using social media.2

A number of academic disciplines consider surveillance an object of inquiry; of interest to criminology is the penetration of surveillance technologies across all phases of the criminal justice process. These developments reflect broader trends in the growth of the “surveillant assemblage” [36], whereby surveillance has become increasingly democratized3 and embedded, i.e., “rhizomatic” ([36], p. 614, citing [18]). Key to understanding surveillance in United States criminal justice contexts is the idea of the case, for the fact that a person is a case means that surveillance becomes interactive, shaped less by its ubiquitous reach and more by the focused processes that organize, for example, supervision or investigation. Whereas ambient surveillance is faceless, dif- fuse, and operates impersonally, interactive surveillance is personified, focused, and pursued in response to a person’s status, identity, or actions.4 Interactive surveillance is purposeful and directed, characterized by unique practices—often including the use of face-to-face interaction—that yield information not necessarily digitized or searchable on demand or by algorithm. Interactive surveillance entails, minimally, interaction between a surveilling agent and an object of surveillance: a case. Rather than consti- tuting a bifurcated pairing, however, ambient and interactive surveillance can function symbiotically: exemplifying “function creep” ([17], passim) [48] (cf. [87]), i.e., the repurposing of technological tools and systems, innovations adopted by justice institu- tions appropriate extant surveillant data streams while also contributing to their growth.

Although electronic monitoring (EM) is a common basis for the surveillance of criminal justice populations in the U.S., scholarly investigation has focused on evalu- ating EM’s impact on various outcomes (e.g., desistance, compliance, recidivism) (e.g., [68, 64, 2]), rather than documenting the surveillance processes it engenders.5 The purpose of the current study is to examine “styles of surveillance” among community corrections officers using EM, employing a specific and comparative analysis (cf. [30])

2 Ambient surveillance emerges from the rise of ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence (cf. [83]), which essentially document in digitized form an increasing range of human traces (“footprints”) and actions (current location, vehicular movements, economic transactions, interpersonal contacts, online behavior, etc.) (cf. [70, 81]). Ambient surveillance is distinguished from mass surveillance in that the latter is directed by the state, whereas the former encompasses both state- and market-based forms of surveillance. 3 Surveillance has become democratized as people increasingly have their lives and routine activities recorded, documented, tracked, and rendered into searchable databases, including socially powerful individuals who historically could use their status to shield themselves from bureaucratic organizations that might seek to monitor them (see [36], p. 618). 4 Because it works “silently,” ambient surveillance can be ignored, forgotten, and taken-for-granted, or become the subject of folklore, rumor, and speculation, and hence the object of collective action, such as when users of a smart phone application organize to protest changes in a social media company’s “privacy” policies [43]. By contrast, interactive surveillance is difficult to mobilize against politically insofar as those subject to it feel restricted in expressing their rights (e.g., to liberty, privacy), are unaware of their status as a case, or are deemed unsympathetic figures to “rally around.” Nevertheless, on an individual level, it is evident that resistance and sabotage may be practiced by those subjected to electronic surveillance. 5 There has also been extensive work examining how offenders experience the condition of being electron- ically monitored (e.g., [67, 38, 41, 23]).

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of how the tools of surveillance are integrated into local agendas and routines, variegated traditions and ideologies, and legal and extralegal considerations associated with social control and rule enforcement. Specifically, we examine how a “second generation” [52] EM technology—GPS—is implemented through interactive surveil- lance with domestic violence (DV) defendants in three U.S. jurisdictions. GPS tracking is an instructive technology for conceptualizing the distinction between interactive and ambient surveillance, for it targets a specific group—a set of cases—rather than a general population, and yet its constantly-banked data streams mimic the behavior of ambient forms.

The capabilities of technologies, including GPS tracking, do not describe or explain the practice of surveillance, either in general or as conducted by the criminal justice “system” (cf. [51]). Discussions of the “surveillance society” [50] often posit a unidimensionality to technology-based surveillance that is not supported empirically. According to David Lyon:

Surveillance today is often thought of only in technological terms. Technologies are indeed crucially important, but two important things must also be remem- bered: One, ‘human surveillance’ of a direct kind, unmediated by technology, still occurs and is often yoked with more technological kinds. Two, technological systems themselves are neither the cause nor the sum of what surveillance is today. We cannot simply read surveillance consequences off the capacities of each new system ([50], p. 6).

Surveillance technology acquires its “effects” from how it is used, but surveillance and technology are not coterminous. It is crucial to investigate how technologies are incorporated into the practice of surveillance, and not assume that any given technology is implemented identically by surveilling authorities or with the heterogeneous popu- lations brought under their purview. Paterson and Clamp [66] correctly note:

It is essential to understand surveillance technologies as social and policy con- structs where the function of the technology is determined by the environment in which it is utilized and experienced by the public. Technology manifests itself in different forms in different socio-political and cultural contexts. Therefore, new surveillance programmes must be understood as products of their environment; they are creations of the criminal justice agencies which have developed them and the offenders/victims who interact with the technology ([66], p. 53-4).

As new forms of technology appear, they are “constructed” as useful in responding to “problems” [77, 42] framed through local, instead of, or in addition to, national lenses, and incorporated into pre-existing justice infrastructures. In the current case, EM technology was adopted by courts’ pretrial services programs as a way of ameliorating a “problem” that prior means had been unable to effectively address: keeping DV victims “safe” from their alleged abusers pending adjudication and disposition of a criminal case. Yet, as illustrated below, surveillance technology has been implemented dissimilarly across jurisdictions.

We argue for a view of surveillance as casework (cf. [75]) embedded within interactive processes emerging from defendant-focused regimes of social control. The

Surveillance as casework: supervising domestic violence 419



ends of social control shape the styles of casework, and hence how surveillance is mobilized and experienced. Accordingly, the means and ends of social control should be identified in interpreting the organization and practice of surveillance. Characteristic styles of agency practice vary, highlighting the importance of describing and analyzing surveillant technologies in context. GPS tracking is not simply a mechanism for enforcing curfew and mobility restrictions on DV defendants; rather, its compliance- focused agenda is incorporated into the practice of interactive surveillance by pretrial officers who use GPS in accordance with the traditions in which they have been trained, as favored by the agencies where they are employed. These traditions animate and legitimize the varying approaches to, or “styles” of, interactive surveillance that are observed in action. Because these styles reflect varying methods and philosophies of community corrections, we first address how supervision has been conceptualized in the literature and review prior research on supervision utilizing EM technology, before examining interactive surveillance in three U.S.-based GPS for DV pretrial programs.

Literature review