Urban Surveillance as Bordering: Counter-terrorism and the exclusion of difference in the city


Since the attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001 there has been a commensurate increase in the use of surveillance practices, applied under the aegis of counter-terrorism. While traditional forms of surveillance such as direct observation have not disappeared, the continued rise of electronic surveillance of public spaces is arguably unique. In this essay I wish to focus on the practice of electronic surveillance in the city, particularly Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), and argue that, rather than simply looking for criminal activity and inducing a degree of self-restraint in a population, urban surveillance is a form of bordering that seeks to sort and ultimately exclude the ‘Other’. Surveillance, I will argue, is a form of sovereign power that utilises the frame of counter-terrorism to enact exclusionary processes that go beyond combatting terrorism and seek to define who in a population belongs and who does not: it is a power relation that excludes the ‘Other’ in society.

In the first section I draw on Michel Foucault’s reading of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (Foucault 1977), applying this to modern surveillance practices and suggesting that this model does not fully encapsulate modern surveillance. I draw on David Lyon (2001) to suggest that contemporary surveillance is part of a process of authentication of individuals. In the second section I consider Didier Bigo’s concept of the ‘Ban-opticon’, a method of sovereign exclusion (Bigo 2002). I draw on Benjamin Muller’s claim that surveillance is a form of ‘identity management (2004) and on the work of Nick Vaughan-Williams (2008) to suggest the process of exclusion is a form of bordering that happens not at the extremities of a territory, but within it. I conclude by summarising my arguments and suggesting that contemporary urban surveillance, typified by CCTV, is a form of exclusion and thus bordering, which is framed in the context of terrorism by the sovereign in order to justify exclusionary practices.

Has urban surveillance moved beyond the Panopticon?

With the rise of electronic surveillance, particularly in public areas of cities, many scholars have utilised Michel Foucault’s concept of panopticism (Foucault 1977 ) as a means of analysing the power relations inherent in surveillance practices (Koskela 2003; Lyon 2001, 2003; Gray 2003; Yesil 2006). Foucault was drawing on the architectural concept of the Panopticon, conceived by the 18th century social reformer Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon is an annular building of cells with a central watchtower, from which all cells can be viewed. With the use of backlighting the inmates cannot see into the watchtower, so do not know whether or not they are being watched. Thus, for those in the watchtower, ‘The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately’ (Foucault 1977: 200); for those in the cells, ‘He is seen, but does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication’ (Foucault 1977: 200). Such an arrangement allows an automatic functioning of power in which the inmate regulates his or her own behaviour in the knowledge that a breach of regulations will be potentially viewed by those in the watchtower. Force is not necessary because compliance with regulations is guaranteed as the inmate internalises the rules and behaves accordingly.

Foucault saw the Panopticon as an instrument of sovereign power relations that efficiently managed individuals and, ‘produces homogenous effects of power’ (Foucault 1977: 202), stating that the Panopticon, ‘programmes, at the level of an elementary and easily transferable mechanism, the basic functioning of a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms’ (Foucault 1977: 209). Can the metaphor of the Panopticon be applied to urban surveillance as a helpful means of illuminating the power relations inherent in CCTV? Certainly one can see the power relations of panopticism existing in CCTV surveillance: in public spaces cameras are often very visible, sometimes with signs drawing attention to them, allowing individuals to know they are potentially being watched; individuals thus must make decisions regarding their behaviour, knowing any breaches of regulations may be seen, thus they internalise the rules and regulate their behaviour. When one considers the CCTV network in a city such as London, where one an individual may be captured by CCTV cameras  up to three hundred times a day (Wright et al 2010: 343), the image of the ‘urban Panopticon’ does not seem at all inappropriate (Gray 2003; Koskela 2003).

However, there seems to be a qualitative difference between the mechanism of a guard in a watchtower and a network of electronic cameras, raising the question of whether panopticism is sufficient concept with which to analyse urban surveillance practices. David Lyon has drawn on Mark Poster’s concept of the ‘superpanopticon’ to describe the use of electronic surveillance and computer databases in society (Lyon 2001: 115). Lyon argues that the storing of biometric information, for example images of an individual’s face, on a database which can then be used to check against surveillance footage to verify an authenticate an individual, both multiplies and decentres an individual: the entire constitution of the subject is reconfigured (Lyon 2001: 115). While, ‘the Panopticon produces subjects with desires to improve their inner lives,’ the ‘superpanopticon’, ‘constitutes objects, individuals with dispersed identities, who may remain unaware of how those identities are construed by the computer’ (Lyon 2001: 115). Lyon refers to the phenomenon as that of the ‘disappearing body’ (Lyon 2001:115), in which certain pieces of information about an individual are gathered and formed into an incomplete and decontextualised representation of the subject. As Peter Adey has put it: ‘The unity of the body is undone by focusing on pieces of it’ (Adey 2009: 277).

Identity is thus reconstituted by capturing surveillance information and subjecting it to algorithmic processes which categorise the subject, which is happening unbeknown to the individual. This complicates the power relations seen that panopticism reveals, suggesting an even less discursive form of power that reformulates the spatial and temporal and takes possession of an individual’s identity. Lyon suggests that, ‘the more people are categorised and classified by surveillance systems, the more they are sorted and split up into segments of the population […] Surveillance often appears to be interested only in those fragmented interests, not in the whole community or city’ (Lyon 2001: 66). This process of sorting that is carried out by the sovereign, without the knowledge of the subject, seeks to secure identities. In the context of counter-terrorism, the aim is to sort individuals in order to predict behaviours and secure cities against attacks. Aspects of everyday urban life, such as, for example, taking photographs in public spaces or carrying certain shapes and sizes of luggage, is securitised.

Exclusion as a bordering practice

Didier Bigo sought to reconceptualise the sovereign power relations produced by surveillance by developing Foucault’s panopticon and suggesting there exists in contemporary surveillance a ‘ban-opticon’. The ‘ban-opticon’ functions to sort subjects and exclude those who do not belong within the sovereign order. Bigo states that, ‘The form of governmentality of postmodern societies is not a panopticon in which global surveillance is placed upon the shoulders of everybody, but a form of ban-opticon in which the technologies of surveillance sort out who needs to be under surveillance and who is free of surveillance because of his profile’ (Bigo 2002: 82). Bigo is concerned with migration and the designation of ‘risk groups’, who are excluded from the polity. ‘Neither reducible to sovereignty and punishment nor to biopolity and power over life, this political technology is based on proactive, anticipative, and morphing techniques and aims at mastering a chaotic future with minimalist management focusing on risky groups (so-identified) or groups at risk’ (Bigo 2002: 82).

Bigo considers ‘misgiving’ and ‘uncertainty’ to be fundamental to a ‘governmentality of unease’: ‘This technology of power unifies internal and external, individual and collective security, and tries to recapitalize trust in the state not by reassuring but by worrying individuals about what is happening both at the external and internal levels. The resulting picture of the world is one of chaos and urban insecurity’ (Bigo 2002: 81). If one removes these ideas from the context of migration and into the realm of terrorism, one has, I think, an outline of how urban surveillance operates within the context of securing against the perceived risks of terrorism. CCTV, as a mechanism of security, is only perceived to be necessary in the context of insecurity; discourses of counter-terrorism regarding surveillance highlight the necessity of surveillance as a means of lowering the risk of terrorist attacks.

The presence of CCTV cameras therefore acts as a means of instilling insecurity and ‘unease’, suggesting images of ‘infiltration’ into the political community by ‘foreign elements’ – in this context, terrorists. As Benjamin Muller suggests: ‘The events of 11 September 2001 led to a significant increase in the use of discourses (and images) of threat and (in)security in the politics of citizenship and migration’ (Muller 2004: 282). The discourses of insecurity and unease that were brought about by the ‘war on terror’ present a substantial degree of danger for individuals, a danger which is emanating from ‘foreign’ elements, from the ‘Other’ in society. Surveillance not only helps construct this sense of unease and threat, but also seeks to sort, and ultimately exclude, the ‘Other’. Along these lines, Muller suggest that there has been a shift from citizenship to ‘identity management’ (on this point also see: Vaughan-Williams 2010), which depoliticises the, ‘ethnic attributes of citizenship’, while politicising the body by using it as a authenticator of identity, ‘for the purpose of access to rights, bodies, spaces’ (Muller 2004: 280). Thus: ‘Like asylum politics, the question in identity management becomes one of (dis)qualified bodies, where the body as a password enables acts of inclusion and exclusion’ (Muller 2004: 288).

If surveillance can be said to be a mechanism of the sovereign power of exclusion, then the use of CCTV cameras in cities can be viewed as an act of bordering. Nick Vaughan-Williams has suggested that, ‘as a control on the movement of subjects, surveillance can be understood as a form of bordering practice: a portal that monitors people and allows for their categorization’ (Vaughan-Williams 2008: 68). The Westphalian conception of the border is of a site at the extremities of the sovereign territory, where the sovereign defines the polis by protecting the citizen and excluding the ‘Other’. However, I have argued that practices of sovereign exclusion occur through the use of surveillance in cities, the beating hearts of the political community. Therefore, practices of bordering happen within the territory as well as at its extremities. Vaughan-Williams has argued that, ‘instead of a fixed territorial site at the outer edge of the state, the vision of the border at work is one that reflects a continuum of security practices with distinctive spatial and temporal dimensions’ (Vaughan-Williams 2010: 1081).

In this way the border is not simply a fixed site that individuals can move through, but rather, the border also moves through individuals. The physical characteristics of a person’s body and their behaviour, functions as a form of authentication, identifying the individual as a member of the polis (a citizen) or as an ‘Other’. Writing about the use of biometrics at border crossings, Louise Amoore has written that, ‘the body, in effect, becomes the carrier of the border as it is inscribed with multiple encoded boundaries of access’ (Amoore 2006: 347-348). In the context of surveillance, bodies are assessed by electronically capturing and analysing their behaviour and phyciality, then sorted according to these ‘encoded boundaries of access’ into the category that belongs inside the political community and that which belongs outside.

Processes of exclusion, of ‘othering’ and considering individuals to belong outside the political community, are not unique to the exigencies of countering terrorism; these processes and expressions of sovereign power existed before September 11th 2001. But the ‘war on terror’ has brought about a greater sense of urgency and legitimacy to exclusionary practices of sovereign power relations. Terrorism, I would argue is not the cause of these process, nor the reason for them, but rather it has provided a degree of legitimacy to carry them out. Global terrorism directly threatens the legitimacy and abilities of the sovereign by challenging the ontology of the sovereign state system: global terrorism challenges concepts of territorially bounded political communities, concepts of nationalism and of citizenship. As global terrorism does not work along such ontological lines, it is impossible for sovereign states to directly attack it, and so have to securitise all aspects of life in the polis. As such, the city becomes a space of heightened security. The city is secured by not only binding its territory, but by binding its population: the border thus not only exists on the fringes of the territory, but it is within the territory too. Surveillance mechanisms, such as urban CCTV, are an example of this sovereign practice of bordering the bodies of individuals.


In this essay I have argued that the use of urban surveillance, particularly CCTV cameras, is a practice of the sovereign power of exclusion, which manifests itself in the use of electronic profiles of individuals which disembody subjects and reconstitute them within the frame of security. I extended this argument to state that the sovereign power relations inherent in exclusion are typical of forms of bordering, thus arguing that surveillance is a form of bordering carried out by the sovereign. I have argued this within the frame of contemporary (counter-)terrorism, suggesting that threats to sovereign authority from global terrorism have been met with an increase in the practice of sovereign exclusion, but that such processes are not present merely because of the perceived threat of terrorism, but are rather part of a larger project of sovereign power.



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Vaughan-Williams, Nick 2010. ‘The UK border security continuum: virtual biopolitics and the simulation of the sovereign ban,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 1071-1083.

Wright, David, Michael Friedewald, Serge Gutwirth, Marc Langheinrich, Emilio Mordini, Rocco Bellanova, Paul de Hirst, Kush Wadhwa and Didier Bigo 2010. ‘Sorting out smart surveillance,’ Computer Law and Security Review, 26, 343-354.

1 thought on “Urban Surveillance as Bordering: Counter-terrorism and the exclusion of difference in the city

  1. Terrorist attack is widely spreading in the world. In the west hemisphere, in the east hemisphere, Terrorism is the first reason why many countries have been tightening their security system. It’s also making people aware to get a vacation to foreign countries whether it’s included in blacklist countries or not.

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