Article: Tracking technology. Youth work in a society of control

Author: Dr Marc Husband | Tags: , , , ,

Youth work has, in its long history, been characterised by a balance of both emancipatory principles and elements of social control (Jeffs and Banks, 1999). This article will consider the new technological landscape and the ethical questions which are to be confronted as tech companies, backed by governments increasingly innovate products which can surveil, track and persuade. The literature suggests that dubious practices, have and are, being rolled out in the name of security which bypasses democratic discussion and legal process. The article suggests that all citizens including, policymakers, practitioners and young people need to educate themselves to be able to navigate this new complex technological environment.


Since the 1980’s we have gazed in wonder at the constant replenishing miracles of technologies and their magical capabilities. Those born in this period know of nothing else but of a technological determinist life in which the silicon chip has transformed devices from our tools to our gods. The entertainment we enjoy, our ability to travel, to read, to cure illness, to communicate at distance is an advancement that all but the most cynical Luddite would agree has changed life for the better. Yet it could be argued that technologies have ‘Bulldozed’ any cynicism we may have ‘…with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant, that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master’ (Carr, N. 2010: 4).

Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff (2019a) claims that we are currently at the prey of the most powerful surveillance, persuasive, propaganda machine in history. She argues that it was shortly after 9/11, in emergency measures when Tech companies were given carte blanche to develop surveillance and persuasion technologies. These were formally, legally, and constitutionally questionable but driven by the, ‘a price worth paying’ discourse which justified that these technologies would offer greater protection to national security. Zuboff points out It was the absence of law in this period that enabled the development of such intrusive technologies. She reveals that we have been nudged towards an all-encompassing technological vision in which we are ‘potentially’ under the total control of global corporations that understand our behaviours and desires better than we understand ourselves. We have become, in her words, ‘remotely controlled’ (Zuboff, 2020). Technology firms are now utilising techniques that transcend our conscious awareness and act out in ways, so complex and subtle, that we cannot untangle or understand their effect. The collection of residual data, who your friends are, how fast you drive, how much exercise you take, what time of the day are you most emotionally vulnerable is gathered and used to give companies a consumer profile to act upon. Where once this data was viewed as unimportant waste, it later became understood that it offered rich predictive information for businesses to harvest and utilise, and to sell personalised products to fit the consumers’ exact needs (ibid). This has been further exploited in the political sphere in the case of Cambridge Analytica. Zuboff argues products and ideas are presented to us in both overt and subliminal ways. Through personalised news articles, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube recommendations, and advertisements to name but a few methods (Zuboff, 2019a).

Surveillance in Youth Work

de st Croix 2010 demonstrated how the Surveillance State had evolved concerning Youth Work. She told us that the details of young people have been gathered for decades. In recent history, it was the New Labour government that stimulated this with the implementation of problem-focused initiatives, targeted at Anti-Social behaviour and deficit views of young people. Since its introduction by Tony Blair’s New Labour government, Every Child Matters’ …has drawn a range of practitioners (including many informal educators) into the formal surveillance process’ (Hoyle 2008 in de St Croix, 2010: 141). Tools such as the Electronic Youth Service (EYS) were, and are encouraged to plan, monitor, and evaluate sessions, and to flag and share important Safeguarding information between agencies while holding the details of individuals involved in youth projects. This led to a culture of professional working practices which encouraged the Track and Tracing of previously unconsidered parts of young people’s lives (Ibid).

In this environment young people’s information may be protected to some extent via GDPR, however, the difficult and often blurred legal landscape around organisational and personal communication between practitioners and young people can lead to questionable practices.

Within my 2016 study, I found that in a small number of cases workers mentioned using technologies to track the locations of groups of young people and to find out what they were up to. As one worker pointed out, Social Network technologies helped find out ‘…Who’s going here? Who’s going there?’…’it’s given us the heads up a few times when we’ve been doing detached work’. The worker described seeing messages which informed him that young people were ‘meeting at (location)…so, bring your drink, meeting here, meeting there’ (Senior Youth worker). Although we can assume this was carried out with good intentions. The example highlights the ease at which organisations can surveil individuals and groups (Husband, 2016). This was also a practice used by a Northeast based youth project featured on a TV documentary in 2014, ‘Underage and Over the Limit’. Within the documentary, a camera crew follows a team of youth workers on their detached and outreach work. The documentary highlighted how technologies were used to locate young people. A youth worker pointed out ‘…we have a team at the (Youth) centre picking up intelligence from Facebook’ (BBC, 2014). While intensions of the Youth Project were clearly honourable, in this case, the workers were making sure that young people who were drinking alcohol were safe, the example, however, highlights the extent to which information can be gathered and used to police and surveil.

Moving towards a society of control

Deleuze (1992) demonstrated that Western states were transitioning from societies characterised by discipline to societies of control. Building on the work of Foucault (1975) Deleuze discussed the notion of the Panopticon as a central feature of the disciplinary society. The Panopticon created by Jeremy Bentham and used as a metaphor by Foucault is a central prison tower from which the guard can constantly view all aspects of the prisoner’s actions (Manokha, 2018). For Foucault (1975) disciplinary societies were characterised by people moving between ‘enclosed’ spaces, with laws and rules. The family home, the school, and the factory. Undesirable behaviours in these spaces were modified by punishment. While Panopticonism is a prominent feature of this period there were, however, spaces in between interactions with institutions in which individuals could be off-grid, free to move outside the regulations or judgments of authority. In the 21st century, panopticonism refers to any way in which power can surveil its subjects. The genius of the concept is that when individuals understand that they are always being watched they self-regulate their behaviours automatically ‘…making coercion and use of force largely unnecessary’ (ibid: 223). Westlake (2008) quickly recognised that social network sites in particular ‘demonstrate Foucault’s internalized Panopticon, the point where individuals police their own behaviour based on a set of naturalized ideas about what is correct’ (ibid: 16). Within the new world of connectivity, combined with more traditional forms of surveillance technologies, our every thought and action become accessible. Giroux reminds us,

…surveillance technologies are now present in virtually every public and private space – such as video cameras in streets, commercial establishments, workplaces, and even schools, as well as the myriad scanners at entry points of airports, retail stores, sporting events, and so on. They function as control mechanisms that become normalised through their heightened visibility. So, too, our endless array of personal devices that chart, via GPS tracking, how every move, our every choice, our every pleasure.

(Giroux, H. 2015: 7)

The culture of control and surveillance is evident in both the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) domestic spying programs which have been exposed by WikiLeaks, and later by Edward Snowdown (CITIZEN FOUR, 2014). Their revelations showed the extent to which these organisations have the power to access information and ‘tap’ new technologies. Edward Snowdon tells us, ‘In the UK there is a system of regulation where anything goes. They collect everything that might be interesting’ (Snowdon in Cadwalladr, 2014). The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 generally known as the Snoopers’ Charter, has further enhanced the government’s ability to access UK citizens’ data (Travis, 2016).

Test and Trace

The coronavirus pandemic has enabled the UK government to become even more active in expanding its surveillance operations, under the ‘price worth paying’ discourse. Chandler (2020) highlights how the UK authorities have been working with ‘four major network providers’ to access and store the roaming data of British citizens, which, he points out is a direct violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Aligned with this development in the UK, the government is in the process of rolling out a Test and Trace application, which potentially acts as an ‘immunity passport’ for free movement for those who have been tested and are clear of infection (Mason et la., 2020). Within weeks of the release of the Test and Trace app, the GMB union highlighted the nefarious potential of such technologies advising its members not to download it. The app which promised to help ‘care workers get access to guidance, learning resources, discounts and other support all in one place’ was monitoring the conversations of users via its chat functionality and was, therefore, able to identify those discussing and complaining about issues such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and those showing their frustrations about pay and conditions (Syal, 2020).

Creating the conversation

To return to Zuboff’s (2020) earlier point, these technologies were born out of a paranoid time, in the vacuum of legal regulatory paradigms, which have been historically required in western democracy. It is only now that the conversations about ‘epistemic inequalities’, are beginning to take place. Epistemic inequality is ‘…defined as unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales. It is best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us’ (ibid). Zuboff points out, that we need to develop laws that ensure the digital world is safe for democracy. To reframe the digital conversation and re-establish that technology should be, what democracy wants it to be (ibid).

The new technological landscape which has intensified over the last decade has interestingly normalised the increase of surveillance and a panoptic self-policing culture, at the same time as the government has made crippling cuts to Youth Services which have decimated statutory provision for young people (Pugh, 2019). Perhaps suggesting that statutory youth work was always, in part at least a form of social control (Jeffs and Banks, 1999) and in the case of panopticonism, the global markets of neo-liberalism have offered a new cost-effective alternative to face-to-face youth work.


While the concepts that have been described are complex, they are none the less part of young people’s everyday experience and in that respect are engaging and important. If the purpose of a professional youth worker is to be informed, a facilitator of discussion, a critic of power, a critical friend, we need to arm our self with this knowledge so we can critically discuss the role of technology in order to be able to have informed conversations with young people and practitioners regarding our society and its direction. We are perhaps not there yet, but technologies which could track the issues young people face, their interests, their fears, their desires, which have the persuasive capabilities to nudge them towards particular services might be alluring to youth work organisations to develop programmes and activities which best suit their user’s needs. Also, these might offer a business advantage in a competitive funding marketplace. But should we be crossing the line towards the use of pervasive techniques that bypass the conscious awareness of the people we work with? The answer seems obvious.

Marshall McLuhan (1994, 1967) famously stated, ‘The medium is the message’, meaning, we often get caught up in the content or information shared through the media without recognising the impact, or the wider effects of the medium itself. The introduction of radio and television for example completely changed the speed at which information could be shared regionally, nationally, and eventually globally, forming new markets, cultures, identities, and presenting new methods of influence and control. Over time their use has become increasingly naturalised, automatic, and habitual (ibid). To consider this in the current media environment we might understand the message simply as the panopticon with features of both Aldus Huxley’s and George Orwell’s dystopias. As Zuboff reminds us, ‘Our ignorance, is their bliss’ (Zuboff, 2019b). With this new information in mind, we can discuss new issues of power and control with young people as well-informed practitioners. Who can value the benefits and question the controlling aspects of this new world?

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Last Updated: 1 September 2020


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Dr Husband is an academic tutor at the University of Sunderland. He has carried out research for both the University of Sunderland and Durham University. He has a strong interest in informal education, new technologies, and also popular culture.