Defining the surveillance state

News & Analysis
Defining the surveillance state

Just search for the term "surveillance state" and you’ll pull up various uses of the term or news articles citing the phrase.

In some respects, this newfound concern can’t be a surprise; given vast new amounts of information in the public sphere since the Edward Snowden leaks began in June. However, it is critical to nail down the exact meaning of the term, so as the public and governments have the debate over State spying, we can actually know what we're talking about. Most importantly, this will help us push back against it.

In some respects, the debate around the ‘surveillance state’ is not new in terms of the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ and the ‘where’. The expanded use of the internet and new technologies have spurred debates about new forms of spying, from the expanding powers of intelligence services to the collection of data from private corporations. Further, the latest turn in the debate around surveillance powers is now arising across the developing world, where many of our partners across Africa, Asia and Latin America are all engaged in many of the fights around privacy rights.

To understand the concept, we can look at the ‘rise’ of the 'surveillance state' concept in the United Kingdom.

The UK and the surveillance state

The debate in the UK has been widespread over the years, across the media, the public sphere, amongst technologies, and even in Parliament. The concern about the 'Surveillance State' is now quite deep within British policy discourse. The UK tends to be the democratic (and sometimes undemocratic) testing ground for new surveillance policy and technologies. This is very important at a global level, particularly as the UK tends to act as a model for other countries: surveillance policy that starts here spreads across the world. Sadly, it tends to be the UK's worst practices that get copied.  And the UK has some terrible practices.

A few years ago, it seemed nearly every policy challenge faced by the UK government required a new database, a new national IT programme, a new form of surveillance.

  • Concerned about terror? The Government's answer was to create a national database of face scans, fingerprints and iris scans.
  • Concerned about speeding up contact between professionals in children’s services? The Government decided to build a national database of children.
  • Concerned about crime? The Government developed a national DNA database by stealth and captured the DNA of 75% of the young black male population. And why don’t we expend nearly the entire crime prevention budget on deploying CCTV across the country without any independent evidence supporting its use.
  • Concerned about predators and criminals preying on children at schools? Create a private sector-run criminal records bureau that will wrongly identify people as criminals and thus bar them from getting jobs.
  • Concerned about global communications capabilities of criminals, terrorists, and the general public? The government proposed a large centralised database of all communications transactions in the country.

The response

The UK data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office, asked scholars in 2006 and 2010 to try to grasp what was going on when it seemed that every policy 'solution' had a surveillance aspect to it. Their body of work defined a surveillance state as a society that is organised and structured on surveillance.

Here’s what they found:

1. The surveillance nearly always starts off as being purposeful and justified on a publicly agreeable goal
2. Then it becomes routine; it happens as we all go about our daily business, it’s in the weave of life and not always visible
3. The surveillance is systematic; it is planned and carried out according to a schedule that is rational, not merely random.
4. Lastly, it is focused; surveillance gets down to details, such as aggregating and storing data that can be transmitted, retrieved, compared, mined, and traded.

The scholars then identified a myriad of risks as a result of this surveillance society: threats to human rights (including privacy), discrimination and exclusion, social sorting, function creep, and disempowerment.

In 2008, Parliament became more interested in the surveillance society. The UK Parliament's Home Affairs Committee called on the Government "to give proper consideration to the risks associated with excessive surveillance." The found the "[l]oss of privacy through excessive surveillance erodes trust between the individual and the Government and can change the nature of the relationship between citizen and state. The decision to use surveillance should always involve a publicly-documented process of weighing up the benefits against the risks, including security breaches and the consequences of unnecessary intrusion into individuals’ private lives."

The Committee called on the Government to minimise the data it collected and resist the tendency to create databases, to better safeguard information, and to delete information when no longer necessary.

The House of Lords select committee on the Constitution undertook another process. After dozens of hearings, the final report had as its opening words: "Surveillance is an inescapable part of life in the UK. […] To respond to crime, combat the threat of terrorism, and improve administrative efficiency, successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world."

Interestingly the committee considered the effects of mass surveillance, saying that "Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country." Concluding that restraints were needed to protect individual freedom and liberty against an expanding surveillance state, the committee called on the establishment of a Joint Committee to review surveillance powers, and to review all legislation that increases surveillance, and called for judicial authorisation (in the police and politicians authorise communications surveillance, not judges).

Popular and political use of ‘the surveillance state’

It was around that time that the terminology of the 'surveillance state' became more popular. It also became political. In 2009 the UK Conservative Party released its 2009 report on "Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State", promising to scrap surveillance systems and introduce new safeguards. In launching that work, David Cameron, then-leader of the Opposition, focused on what he called the 'surveillance state'.

"Faced with any problem, any crisis -  given any excuse - Labour grasp for more information, pulling more and more people into the clutches of state data capture. [...] This Government is running not just a control state, but a surveillance state. […]  If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state." (his speech is no longer on the website)

Surveillance had become a mainstream policy issue, and both the public and politicians were weary. The DNA database was restrained, ID cards were destroyed, and databases on children were dismantled. And abuses continue to be revealed: secret surveillance of a family to see if they were abusing school enrolment policies, and unwarranted searches of a politician's office and home while investigating embarrassing government leaks, secret spying on a mother who campaigned for justice for her slain son, maintaining secret databases on peaceful protestors, and police colluding with industry to create a blacklist of workers.

Then the most surprising development: the Government again tried in June 2012 to reintroduce the policy to monitor all communications in Britain. Despite all the abuses, all the studies, all the rhetoric, and even an election, the policy was re-introduced. Two Parliamentary committees reviewed a draft bill and questioned the veracity of the Government's claims about the need for this policy; and it stalled.

Yet all this time, we now know, they were doing it anyways, as we learned about the upstream data collection under the 'Tempora' programme run by the UK Government’s intelligence agency, GCHQ.

What is a Surveillance State?

Despite all this, we still arrive at the same question posed in the beginning: What is a ‘surveillance state’?

Building on all the problematic, failed, and reversed policies in the UK over the past two decades, and bearing in mind the recent disclosures of mass and intrusive surveillance by the intelligence services, and the alarming dramatic tone of the political establishment condemning the disclosures, we are finally close to understanding what it really is.

A surveillance state is a state that sees surveillance as the solution to complex social issues.

A surveillance state collects information on everyone, without regard to innocence or guilt, and pretends it is not surveillance.

A surveillance state secretly redefines laws, and the language of the law.

A surveillance state monitors both threats to the state's interests and threats to its surveillance practices.

A surveillance state conducts itself under veils of secrecy, and creates monsters of those who wish to debate it, understand it, or inform it.

A surveillance state avoids democratic and judicial authorisation and scrutiny.

A surveillance state deputises the private sector, by compelling access to companies' data stores, then paying industry to run its control systems, and and even selling our information to industry as though it belongs to the state.

A surveillance state is incompetent and relies upon technologies and data with inherent limitations. It wrongly defines criminals and terrorists with little right to redress, it discriminates and excludes.

A surveillance state undermines personal and economic security and all other social objectives to accomplish its goal: whatever is in the state's surveillance interests. As such, the surveillance state sees only the balance between its needs and our selfish individual wants.

A surveillance state cannot be questioned because it has the monopoly on knowledge. It cannot be overseen because it can control what can be disclosed.

The surveillance state will defend itself with rhetoric of fear. And then its powers are used for purposes well beyond their origin and justification.

The surveillance state plays a long game, irrespective of who or what party is in power it seeks its own policies.

Most worryingly, though it has been the ambition of many over time, whether they are evil or well-meaning, for the first time it can now be built.

It will be a long battle to push back against this surveillance state. At least we now have a better idea of what we are fighting against. I recommend you to match your own government’s activities against this definition, so that we can see the scale of the challenge ahead, while also recognising what we all have in common: governments with not-so-secret ambitions to watch everyone, everywhere, for informational dominance.