Surveillance: Why worry, if you’ve got nothing to hide?

The word surveillance comes from the French verb “surveiller”, which, when translated, means “to watch over”. [1] Sociologist and surveillance scholar David Lyon defines surveillance as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered”. [2] Increasingly, information gathering and surveillance technologies are becoming more and more common as part of everyday life and routines. [3]

Surveillance is frequently a theme in popular culture. Several novels, such as We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), and Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953), and films such as Minority Report (2002), The Truman Show (1998), and the Bourne trilogy (2000s), have come to inform and illustrate types of surveillance. Perhaps the most common image of surveillance comes from George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s novel, the upper- and middle-class citizens of Oceania have every aspect of their life observed and monitored by the shadowy figure of Big Brother. In everyday conversation, Big Brother has come to denote intensive or mass surveillance practices that are considered excessively intrusive.

Another popular image of surveillance comes not from popular culture, but from historical writings on social control. The Panopticon, first imagined by Jeremy Bentham in the mid-1700s, represented an experiment attempting to picture an ideal prison design whereby “deviant” individuals could be controlled and eventually reformed. The key feature of the Panopticon was the guard’s tower: positioned in the centre of a circular prison, it allowed the guard to view inside every single cell at any time. This visibility was one-way: those in the cells were aware that at any point in time they may be being watched, but they could not see into the guard’s tower. Michel Foucault argues that this structure would cause those in the cells to act as though they were always being watched, regardless of whether they were or not. [4]

These pop culture representations of surveillance share a key feature: they involve the few (or the one) surveilling the many. Today, though, surveillance technologies and techniques allow for nearly anyone to monitor anyone or everyone. Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson note that, with the increasing ability of technology to routinely surveil everyday activities, the images of ‘Big Brother’ and the Panopticon are no longer adequate.

Instead of surveillance being performed by the state or certain officials and directed at a specific audience, increasingly it is being conducted with the use of widely available technology and it is increasingly focused on a wider range of individuals and activities. Haggerty and Ericson call this the “surveillant assemblage”. In the surveillant assemblage, individuals who were not previously the focus of routine surveillance are increasingly subject to monitoring. [5]

In the past, surveillance was targeted purposefully at identifiable individuals or groups for a particular reason. For example, law enforcement would monitor the phone calls or track the whereabouts of an individual in the course of a criminal investigation. Now, however, more and more people, not just those under direct investigation, are the subjects of surveillance, and we are being monitored in more ways by more sources.

We also need to change the way we understand surveillance. Often, surveillance is considered to be a strategy used by the state or government, with a focus on security and safety issues. With the increasing ease of collecting information and tracking movement, however, the means and the end goals of surveillance have changed. Haggerty and Ericson note that contemporary surveillance is mass surveillance, intended to transform the population into consumers (and commodities) that participate in the market, instead of the repression or discipline that characterized more traditional, or personal surveillance. [6] Corporations can now use mass surveillance to develop targeted advertising or observe consumer spending and purchasing patterns, using an extensive range of information that is obtained with minimal effort. This means that surveillance is less frequently focused on the physical body, and more frequently on bits of information obtained electronically, used to compile an image of an individual.

Lyon also argues that we live in a surveillance society. [7] Simply put, this means that surveillance has become part of the everyday operation of our world. A substantial part of what we do in our day-to-day lives is recorded, whether it involves making purchases using credit or debit cards (both online and off), using smartphones or applications to check-in at various physical locations, or simply browsing the Internet and checking email. This includes the state monitoring citizens in an attempt to identify potential threats, employers supervising employees to ensure maximum productivity during the work day, parents observing children to make sure that inappropriate material is not being accessed, or companies monitoring transactions and records to ensure that their clients have acceptable credit ratings. [8]

Often, justification for surveillance comes from related ideas of safety and risk. States, for example, monitor citizens’ activities online for the stated goal of uncovering terrorist plots or national security issues. Surveillance is portrayed as necessary for ensuring the safety of the citizens from the risk posed by those who are engaged in illegal or harmful activities. Similarly, parents monitor their children’s online activities because of the risks that the Internet is believed to present, such as online child predators, pornographic and other inappropriate material, or cyberbullying. Stories of threats and dangers abound in the media and in popular culture, and surveillance is prevented as a way to protect ourselves and our children from these risks. While considering the benefits that surveillance can have for states, corporations, and even individuals, negative consequences such as data flows, function creep, social sorting and the diminishment of trust in social relationships must also be considered.

The term “data flow” generally refers to cross-border transmissions of data. [9] It can be problematic when a country, state, or province’s privacy laws or restrictions do not prevent the transfer of personal information across borders; when there are differences in the legislative approaches of countries, it becomes difficult for individuals to know which national agency to contact or which legislation their information is governed by if issues of privacy emerge. [10]

“Function creep” occurs when data is collected for one stated purpose but is then increasingly used for different purposes without notification or consent. This creep often emerges as a way to optimize or consolidate existing practices. Information collected by one source for one purpose can be innocuous and may not concern individual users, as such. Increasingly, however, different sources of information that are collected can be combined, presenting an accurate picture of the user’s behaviour and interests. [11]

“Social sorting” is also an inherent feature of surveillance. Based on anonymized and aggregated data, people can be placed in predetermined categories. These labels are subsequently hard to challenge or change. The prevalence of surveillance allows for these labels and categories to become institutionalized, reinforcing differences across a number of lines, such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and others. [12]

Surveillance also implies a certain lack of trust. When someone (like a citizen or a child) is monitored by another (such as the government or a parent) in order to control behaviour, it implicitly tells the individual under surveillance that they are not trusted. Living in a surveillance society tells us that we are not to be trusted – and that others are not to be trusted either. [13]

In particular, youth today grow up with all of their online activities monitored in some way. Furthermore, many youth accept these surveillance practices as both a condition of using technology and as completely normal. While some employ techniques to subvert or evade surveillance, this normalization of surveillance is still a matter of concern. Normalization implies that what was once an exceptional or unordinary practice becomes so common that it becomes unremarkable.



[1] Surveillance. (2012). Retrieved 7 May 2012 from
[2] Lyon, D. (2001) Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life. Buckingham: Open University Press.
[3] Hiranandani, V. (2011). Privacy and security in the digital age: contemporary challenges and future directions. The International Journal of Human Rights, 15(7), 1091-1106.
[4] Foucalt, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
[5] Martin, A.K., van Brakel, R.E., & Bernhard, D.J. (2009). Understanding resistance to digital surveillance: Towards a multi-disciplinary, multi-actor framework. Surveillance & Society, 6(3), 213-232; Haggerty, K.D., & Ericson, R.V. (2000). The surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 605-622.
[6] Haggerty, K.D., & Ericson, R.V. (2000). The surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 605-622.
[7] Lyon, D. (2008). Surveillance Society. Fesitval del Diritto, Piacenza, Italia. September 2008. Retrieved 7 May 2012 from
[8] Ibid.
[9] Wright, D., et al. (2010). Sorting out smart surveillance. Computer Law & Security Review, 26, 343-354.
[10] Kuner, C. (2010). Regulation of transborder data flows under data protection and privacy law: Past, present, and future. TILT Law & Technology Working Paper No. 016/2010. Retrieved 10 May 2012 from publications/workingpapers /ckuner16.pdf/
[11] McKee, H. A. (2011). Policy matters now and in the future: Net neutrality, corporate data mining, and government surveillance. Computers and Composition, 28, 276-291; Lyon, 2008.
[12] Lyon, 2008.
[13] Ibid.