Handbook: Societal measures

The opinions and actions of opinion leaders, celebrities, teachers, activists and artists can have an impact on a societal level. As an outstanding example, Edward Snowden’s brave disclosure of the secret services’ mass surveillance practices conducted far beyond the constitutional and legitimate borders was a revelation for many people and generated critical opinions worldwide.

If such impacts promote the critical evaluation of surveillance and the clear distinction of its advantageous and harmful effects, then the activities of these influential persons can contribute to making our present surveillance societies more democratic, more lawful and ethically more acceptable. Conversely, if such personalities, driven by interests or conviction, exert an opposite influence on public opinion, then their views may reinforce the disadvantageous impacts and harmful effects of surveillance. That is why society’s critical thinking and reactions are of utmost importance in such matters.

Individual responses as collective actions

If many individuals respond the same way to the same surveillance challenges, they can exert a societal influence even if they are not organisationally co-ordinated. Certain free services, such as Change.org, can facilitate the collecting and forwarding of such responses of individuals. Virtual advocacy networks and blogs publicising surveillance practices may be regarded as intermediate forms between individual and organised responses; however, organised collective actions or protest movements can also grow out of such individual responses.

A less spectacular but rather efficient kind of individual response exerting large-scale impact is the consequent change of consumer behaviour. If users of Internet-based and mobile services preferred less surveilling (or more privacy-friendly) services and service providers, or boycotted privacy intrusive ones, despite seemingly advantageous marketing offers, such actions would certainly change the business model of such services, resulting in the decrease of the harmful side effects of surveillance.


Demonstrations against surveillance belong to the most radical and spectacular forms of societal measures, which can have a direct impact, amplified by the media, on legislation and regulation, and their enforcement, as well as on public opinion and individual behaviour. Since surveillance itself, and in particular the asynchronous use of personal data in computer networks, is an abstract notion, members of the public may have difficulties in understanding its nature and implications. Civic organisations may act as intermediaries and help people understand surveillance practices and organise demonstrations, as happened in Germany where tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated on the streets of Berlin against the EU Data Retention Directive and against surveillance.

Specific groups with a big impact

Certain social and professional groups may have an impact on surveillance societies bigger than their proportion of the population. One such group is the community of IT professionals. As Lawrence Lessig famously noted, in modern information societies, “the Code is the law”, that is, the de facto lawmakers are the coders: the IT specialists who design, implement and maintain information systems, including surveillance systems. This is why other members of society need to learn, and influence, their views on this subject matter. Studies of IT professionals’ views on surveillance have shown that these professionals are more critical towards built-in surveillance capabilities of the information systems they are required to design and operate than may be generally assumed. It is therefore important to demonstrate to these specialists that society expects them to create a world through the systems they design in which they would happily live as private individuals, too.

Similarly influential can be the non-governmental organisations specialised in information rights and freedoms, or consumer protection groups, together with their supporters, not only through organising demonstrations but also through publicising the location and functioning of CCTV cameras on their websites, as has happened in Milan and Budapest, among other cities.

Surveillance and democracy

The two notions, surveillance and democracy, can easily be regarded as contradictory, even antagonistic. However, as Haggerty and Samatas (2010) show, there exist surveillance practices that may fit into a democratic, rule-of-law society, provided that such systems comply with the fundamental legal, ethical and procedural requirements of such societies. In addition, the connotation of surveillance is different across countries and cultures, as are the social and political traditions even in liberal democracies. Citizens of former dictatorships or authoritarian regimes may be less sensitive to surveillance practices, or concentrate only on state surveillance while being negligent towards new business-driven forms of surveillance. However, a lower level of sensitivity in society does not decrease the responsibility of those who introduce or operate surveillance systems, with special regard to globalisation trends that decrease differences among surveillance techniques, practices and ideologies worldwide.

Sousveillance, Equiveillance

An activist approach rather more idealistic than a realistic societal measure is the so-called “sousveillance”, that is, surveillance from below, or counter-surveillance, or “watching the watchers”. While it is an inevitable component of a transparent and accountable surveillance system to provide channels through which the subjects can receive information about the surveillance practices, such actions, mainly in the domain of visual surveillance (for example, demonstrators using their mobile phone cameras to photograph police using cameras to surveil protestors), may serve as an awareness-raising tool rather than a real societal response to surveillance which, according to their proponents, would finally reach an equilibrium of surveillance powers, “equiveillance”.

Surveillance and art

The positive and negative ideas constructed about surveillance, curiosity and fear, trust and distrust, relationships between individuals, between state and society, are reflected in the media, popular culture and various artistic genres. Successful mainstream films, fiction and non-fiction can have a significant impact on public opinion, thus indirectly on the regulation and practice of surveillance. Although the “Big Brother culture” of reality shows may downplay the serious nature of surveillance, socially responsible art films, together with advocacy or activist films, may counterbalance this effect. There are artists, works of art and even artistic genres whose central theme is surveillance and being under surveillance. This specific branch in contemporary art is often called Surveillance Art, and its creators surveillance artists. Experimental films and alternative art have a relatively small and specialised audience; however, they can also have an impact on people’s approach toward surveillance at the societal level.

Public opinion

Surveys, quantitative and qualitative methods of measuring public opinion, constitute an important element of democratic governance. Pro- and anti-surveillance interest groups and advocates equally like to refer to the findings of such surveys. Pro-surveillance forces are particularly keen on quoting survey results proving that people do not take an interest in protecting their private sphere and do not oppose increasing surveillance practices. However, as Raab and Szekely have shown in the EC-funded PRISMS project, both the media and various interest groups have a tendency to cherry-pick the research findings that best support their own views, and to accept these partial results as scientific evidence.

In addition, in a democratic society there are limits even to majority opinions, policies and regulations must not reflect the majority’s views exclusively. Not infrequently, the minority must be protected from the majority and, under some circumstances, it may even become necessary to defend certain fundamental values, such as privacy, against the majority public opinion.

An activist press

The free press is a precondition but is not in itself a satisfactory safeguard against the harmful effects of surveillance practices. Since the media in liberal capitalism is often subject to financial and other influence by the government and business entities, including those who have vested interests in increasing surveillance, the presence of an activist-minded press is indispensable for making these practices known, accountable and subject to criticism.


Societal measures are interrelated with both regulatory measures and the behaviour of individuals. All these potential measures can contribute to influencing regulation, enforcing transparency and accountability of surveillance, and tilt power asymmetries more toward individuals.

Return to Contents.