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David Lyon on the "Rise of the Surveillance State"

May 15, 2014
Surveillance is neither good nor bad in itself, but it is never neutral either.

David Lyon is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada who serves as Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre and Professor of Sociology and of Law at Queen’s University (Ontario).He has been extensively involved in debates around issues of national and international surveillance practices, policies, and ethics. Abigail Harmon, Digital Marketing Coordinator for Regent College, asked him some questions regarding “surveillance culture.” This summer at Regent, he will teach the course: Google, Government, and the Rise of the Information State from June 9-13.

AH: The “rise of the surveillance state” has been in the news in an unprecedented manner since the recent revelations from former NSA employee Edward Snowden. Can you give a brief overview of what these revelations have been and how they are significant?

DL: The Snowden revelations show how the NSA is engaged in mass surveillance not only of foreigners (such as Canadians) but also of American citizens in ways that appear to be out of control. This is not targeted, focused surveillance but a dragnet in which anyone can get caught. In my view, such activities are a threat not only to privacy but to democracy and to human dignity. President Obama has begun to try to rein in these practices but there’s a long way to go.

AH: How did we get here as a society?

DL: For a start, there’s no conspiracy! It’s a combination of factors including changes in technology; the ways that risk and opportunity are handled; growing worries about security; neoliberal policies that seek “market solutions” and see a key role for government in police and defence; lax laws and our own attitudes (such as the seductive “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”).

AH: You’re the Director of the Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University. How did you get involved in these studies? What fascinates you most about this topic?

DL: Back in the early 1980s, I got hooked by the debates over the (then) new information and communication technologies and their supposed social impact. I was a critic of overblown optimism. In exploring the “information society” more deeply, I was struck by changes in how personal information was being handled by governments and corporations. That was my way into surveillance studies. I’m intrigued by the ways that surveillance expands and the hard time that ethics, law, and regulation have keeping up. But I’ve also seen that it’s possible to intervene and to make a difference.

AH: The rise of the surveillance state affects us as consumers but also as Christians. How do we think about surveillance Christianly? What should be some of the major concerns/questions that Christians should be asking around it?

DL: The social and political influence of Christianity over the past 200-300 years has been strong, especially in expanding democratic participation, seeking social justice, and upholding human dignity. Each of these is profoundly challenged by aspects of the rise of contemporary surveillance. Surveillance today often has chilling effects on those who wish to challenge the status quo, thus inhibiting participation. It also works by classifying people so that different groups can be treated differently, frequently disadvantaging already marginalized groups. And, done by large organizations, surveillance invades the private spaces of our lives that are vital for human flourishing.

AH: Where do you see any good things happening in this area? What are the benefits of the rise of surveillance, if any?

DL: Surveillance is neither good nor bad in itself, but it is never neutral either. Christians may also contribute to surveillance negatively. Some “Christian” teachings—like the “eye of God”—have been used to justify surveillance in controlling and repressive ways. But the benefits for maintaining “peace and good order” or simply for keeping an organization efficient and focused should not be overlooked. At present, we have allowed surveillance to develop in ways that are ethically questionable—operating remotely, trusting marketing, to be used in other areas such as security.


Interested in knowing more? The free PDF of his new book and a video on "The Culture of Surveillance" are available at www.surveillanceincanada.org.