Surveillance and society

Monday, 16 June, 2014
Whatever we think about it, it is clear that surveillance has increased – it is hard to ignore as the topic frequently hits the headlines. But does it matter? The EU-funded IRISS project is intent on finding out. The team is looking at whether surveillance changes our behaviour, and how it impacts our basic rights. The conclusions will be presented to policymakers, together with recommendations.
“Every day there is a new surveillance gadget, in addition to the numerous programmes already gathering data on us. We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society,” claims IRISS coordinator Reinhard Kreissl of Austria’s Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology. He wants to know what effect this surveillance has on how we live our lives, and levels of trust.

The IRISS team has been looking into the legal, social and technical aspects of surveillance, investigating awareness and reactions through case studies and interviews. And whereas talk of surveillance usually focuses on state security, the project is also looking at data collection by the private sector – for example by social media outlets, online vendors and search engines.

Does it matter?

In interviews, some people told researchers they have nothing against surveillance as they have nothing to hide. “When they started to think about what it means to be under constant surveillance, others vowed to change the way they live their lives,” says Kreissl. Are they right to be concerned?

Kreissl gives two quite different examples of how surveillance can change behaviour. If everyone knows that a demonstration will be filmed, and that the images will be kept, some may decide not to attend. “This has an effect on political culture,” he says. This is known as the ‘chilling effect’.

Meanwhile targeted marketing provides very tailored information, defined by the information already collected on the recipient, and has a manipulative effect on how someone sees the world and how they behave, says Kreissl.


IRISS is using three case studies to investigate the impact of surveillance on democratic and open societies – neighbourhood watch schemes, credit appraisals (checking a person or company’s credit record) and automatic number plate recognition.

Researchers are looking at how these schemes are organised in different countries, and how people feel about them. The results are not yet available, but patterns are discernable, says Kreissl.

The findings will be used to establish whether some people already have strategies for dealing with surveillance. They will also be used to identify how social, economic and institutional resilience can be increased. IRISS understands resilience primarily as citizens’ capability to develop strategies countering any negative impacts that mass surveillance has on their lives. Strategies may range from open resistance to specific technical measures of encryption, to avoidance.

Security and convenience trade-offs

Arguments in favour of surveillance often focus on security. CCTV, for example, “is often seen as a solution to all problems. But if you look at the research on it, you see that while it can have a positive effect, as a deterrent and in reducing crime, it is only effective in very specific situations. This is true for all forms of surveillance,” says Kreissl, who is clearly passionate about the subject. The IRISS team has found very little independent evidence of the positive effects of surveillance, he adds.

The project has looked back over the history of surveillance, and found that while technologies are usually developed for a specific purpose for which they may be useful, the concepts are then sold to other sectors by marketing managers. “Once installed, the tools then take on a life of their own,” says Kreissl.

It is not however the case that ordinary people are always passive bystanders in the collection of information – many of us give away data. “We could refrain – we could go to a travel agent to book our flight rather than booking online, for example. But people choose convenience over privacy,” says Kreissl. His goal is to make people think twice before taking the easy option.

In addition to guidelines for the general public highlighting what to be aware of and when to be careful, IRISS is also formulating recommendations for policymakers at national and EU level. “It’s important to keep the discourse going – to keep the topic on the political agenda. I hope we can do this with IRISS,” says the coordinator.

Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies
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