Handbook: Context

Contextualising surveillance and surveillance societies

This section outlines briefly the nature of surveillance, provides some key examples of surveillance technologies, interdependencies, surveillance players and their relationships, and illustrates the nature of surveillance societies.

A surveillance society is one in which surveillance has become virtually ubiquitous. Even if there are democratic procedures, effective oversight and control are extremely difficult in a surveillance society in which power is exercised by large companies, state organisations and intelligence agencies.

Surveillance, democracy and resilience

Surveillance can potentially offer many benefits to the state, private companies, local communities and even individuals. A democratic state can employ surveillance societies in order to help guard its citizens from terrorism, subversion and crime, to monitor its borders and to protect its national interests. Private companies can use data gathered in order to understand customers and users better, to develop better products and services and to tailor services to individuals. Communities can use surveillance to help make their localities safer or to identify those causing problems for others. Individuals can use surveillance to guard their properties or their loved ones.

Yet, whatever it’s acknowledged benefits, surveillance may itself pose a threat to individuals, communities and societies, because of its ubiquity, intensity and use of personally identifiable information. These qualities of surveillance may erode privacy and a host of freedoms, rights and values that it is designed to protect, including democracy itself.

Surveillance has deleterious effects. It may affect privacy. If it is not transparent and accountable, it may erode trust, societal cohesion and even democracy itself. Surveillance’s ability to discriminate amongst members of the public or social groups may have implications for social integration and societal solidarity. Surveillance also affects human dignity and challenges human autonomy. It affects the way individuals move within societies, associate with others, think, express themselves and engage lawfully in political activity. Democratic practices and the working of democratic institutions depend upon the realisation of principles, freedoms and the rule of law that surveillance is likely to threaten.

Insofar as a society is democratic, its citizens have some choice as to how their government behaves and what is permitted of companies, organisations and others. Citizens may use the electoral process or engage in public debate in order to influence governments and policy- makers. Because of the significant potential dangers involved in surveillance, surveillance policy and practice require particular public scrutiny. But as well as responding in an ad hoc fashion to problems with surveillance as they arise, societies may wish to put in place regulatory and other mechanisms in order to provide continuous safeguards against surveillance. Indeed, to some extent, this already happens. Yet one may ask how effective such existing safeguards actually are, and question the degree to which societies are currently “resilient” to the negative effects of surveillance.

Resilience to surveillance requires ways of preventing, mitigating, remedying and “bouncing forward” from the negative effects of surveillance. Resilience strategies include ways of anticipating the use of surveillance and raising the awareness of the public. They require political actors, policy-makers and regulators to devise actions – including bringing pressure to bear, and passing and implementing legislation and other measures of control – and strategies to minimise surveillance, to make it transparent and to ensure its accountability. Resilience requires independent regulators to provide oversight, to bring sanctions to bear upon excessive surveillance and to influence surveillance plans and practices before they are implemented. It also recognises that resilience to, and regulation of, surveillance in any single country have less of a chance of succeeding without international and global co-operation and co-ordination.

Return to Contents. Next: Questions for increasing resilience in surveillance societies