Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Biopolitical Justification for Geosurveillance

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Biopolitical Justification for Geosurveillance

Article excerpt

      (09-11-06) 12:01 PDT SAN FRANCISCO--A United Airlines flight that
      was diverted to Dallas this morning after an unclaimed electronic
      device was discovered onboard has landed at San Francisco
      International Airport, an airport spokesman said.
      The flight crew on United flight 351 from Atlanta to San Francisco
      elected to stop in Dallas around 7 a.m., said SFO spokesman Mike
      McCarron, after finding a backpack on board that no one claimed.
      The unattended backpack contained a PDA device, McCarron said,
      "like a Blackberry."
      Authorities searched the plane in Dallas and found nothing
      unusual, he said.
      --Marisa Lagos, 2006

There was a time, perhaps not too long ago, when finding a BlackBerry would have meant "finders keepers, losers weepers." Now however, it is grounds for emergency action by the state.

The diversion of United Airlines flight 351 to Dallas, Texas, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is by no means a unique event. United Airlines flight 919 was diverted in 2004 when Yusuf Islam, the pop singer formerly known as "Cat Stevens," was found to be on board. The U.S. government refused to disclose what connection, if any, he had with terrorism, and he was returned without charge. In May 2005 Alitalia flight 618 was similarly diverted to Bangor, Maine, after a passenger's name was found to match one on the no-fly list. After being briefly detained, the passenger continued his flight, again without charge. (In October 2006, the CBS television show 60 Minutes revealed that the no-fly list was riddled with errors [Kroft 2006].) Over the 2005 New Year, the media suddenly became concerned about terrorists shining laser beams into pilots' eyes in order to make planes crash--a story that then faded away. A number of women have reportedly been forced to drink their own breast milk to demonstrate its safety even if it was in the allowable 3-ounce bottles, and in both August and September 2006 flights were diverted because the cabin crew found bottles of water on the plane (King 2006; Smith 2006; 2006; Bernhard 2007).


In this article I discuss the political circumstances that provide space for surveillance of these and other geographical activities, especially travel and the occupation of certain spaces by "problematized" and "risky" populations. I draw on recent literature on both surveillance and Foucauldian biopolitics (roughly, the politics of population) to examine how the politics of fear provides a "rationale" for the use of geosurveillance in dealing with these populations (Robin 2004; Siegel 2005). I argue that populations and groups are the target of a risk-based society that no longer requires knowledge of the specific individual but rather of the biopolitical trends of problematic populations. Activation of the politics of fear in turn necessitates extensive and ongoing geosurveillance.

Fear is receiving increased attention in the geographical literature, notably in the role that geospatial information technologies such as mapping and GIS may play in understanding it (Pain and others 2006; Kwan 2007). Lacking is any literature on the question of whether geospatial technology plays a role in assisting or even promoting societal fear, especially from a political perspective; for example, GIS and the politics of fear.

In assessing this role we should be careful not to assert that geospatial technologies are essentially negative. Rather, they constitute a complex web of power-knowledge relations in which "power" does not mean "domination." The differing nature of these political relations provides space for many different kinds of uses of the technology. Indeed, the heterogeneous and multiplicitous possibilities of geographic information technologies give credence to recent efforts to "reconstruct" it or to explore countermappings (Schuurman and Kwan 2004; Harris and Hazen 2006). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.