Studying Surveillance: The Contribution of Political Science?

Charles D Raab - University of Edinburgh
Surveillance Cameras

by Frédéric Bisson CC BY

The saturation of media coverage of surveillance and spying (including GCHQ, the Snowden revelations, Mrs. Merkel’s mobile), together with the furore over phone hacking, has elevated the salience of information and privacy issues in the public and political consciousness. Whether this attention will be converted into changes in policy and practice remains to be seen, as new public issues inevitably supplant this current crop in the attention of the media and the public, and as heated controversy over surveillance cools while the issue is kicked into the long grass. Meanwhile, long-awaited changes in the regulation of practices concerning personal data are in train in the EU, not motivated by the current spate of revelations as the media sometimes implies, but given a new impetus by them. We should not suppose that the main interest in these matters is owing to the involvement of world leaders, celebrities, or putative terrorists as the perpetrators or targets of surveillance and its invasion of privacy and related freedoms and rights. There is a fresh opportunity for political scientists to turn their attention to this cluster of issues and conflicts, to look beyond them, and to underpin the work of pundits and activists with research and thinking of a more fundamental kind.

This opportunity has long been present in the age of the ‘information society’, long before the advent of the Internet and events such as ‘9/11’, since when we have all been in the thrall of oversimplified ‘liberty versus security’, ‘privacy versus security’ tropes deployed by politicians and journalists alike. Yet the representation of political science amid what is now an army of academic researchers on information policy, privacy, human rights, the regulatory governance of information flows, and related topics has always been inexplicably small, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s when ‘databanks’ was the word to conjure with, to the present time when ‘surveillance society’ frames the discourse. Of course, political scientists and public administration specialists have paid attention to the questions of official secrecy, open government, ‘e-government’, and freedom of information, in which privacy considerations are implicated. But for too long, the other side of the coin, involving surveillance and its effects on privacy and a host of related values, has been left to academic lawyers, computer and information-technology scientists, diverse social scientists, and cultural commentators. The contribution of political science, international relations, and policy studies has been underpowered and much less evident; some 17 years ago, a plea made in a prominent journal for this to change fell on deaf ears in our broadly construed discipline. Even within the last few years, a research-based panel on surveillance, presented within a PSA Annual Conference, attracted an audience of only one person, a visiting Romanian.

Those few of us, internationally, who have devoted much of our careers as political scientists to analysing and describing information policy-related processes and issues must feel vindicated now that daily media coverage, and considerable top-level politics and global concern about surveillance are the order of the day. But there is no joy in such vindication when the extent and depth of these information practices has important consequences for states and individuals alike: from statesmen to online consumers to health-care patients to bank customers to environmental activists to airline passengers, and to many more. The collection, processing, use and communication of personal information, or on the other hand the openness and transparency of official information, are old phenomena in the history of the modern state. So, too, is the study of the exercise, legitimacy and organisation of power, which helps to define our discipline. But contemporary political scientists (including political theorists) have in large measure abdicated any voice in shaping the research frameworks and questions that could be brought to these subjects. We are thin on the ground in the emergent multi-discipline of ‘surveillance studies’, which is separate from ‘security studies’ in which international relations specialists participate. We are also rare birds in the welter of EU Framework-funded projects that have been spawned over the last 10 years or so to work on information policy-related subjects.

These projects involve democracy, security, surveillance, information and communications technology, and the legal and governance regimes that exist or could be shaped for regulating the information practices in question. These include airport security, the use of social media, videosurveillance, consumer credit-scoring, data sharing and data mining, the tracking of human movement, and so on. Research of this kind aims to document the policies, describe the practices and their different fields of application, compare different contexts and national settings, and survey public attitudes and knowledge about what happens to their data. It also seeks better ways of conceptualising the terms and discourse that are used: ‘privacy’, ‘surveillance’, ‘resilience’, ‘security’, ‘liberty’, ‘rights’, ‘identity’, and many others. It aims to devise better analytic frameworks to guide empirical research beyond the retailing of anecdote and horror story. All this of course requires the participation of specialists from many disciplines and none. But the study of politics has long traded in these empirical and theoretical matters as part of our interest in political theory, the state, political and governmental institutions, and political behaviour. Our input could be better, and more, than it has been in the relatively new convergence of academic forces, in order to cast light on, and indeed to be critical of, what we see happening all around us; and moreover, to enable us to see that which we do not yet see, and that which other specialisms do not focus upon. This, in turn, also has a payoff in terms of research on the freedom-of-information side of the story.

It was not a good career-move for any political scientist to concentrate on this landscape some 35 or more years ago. The profession had no place for it; there was little established social-science (and especially political-science) literature of quality and depth; it was below the radar of the world of public policy and governance; it was the province of lawyers and ‘geeks’; and the media as well as parliaments ignored it. This is perforce not so now: all these conditions have been transformed. We should take the current fascination and horror with these profoundly important developments and revelations as an opportunity to reflect upon how members of our discipline can work along with other colleagues to know, understand, and communicate our research into these phenomena, bringing our myriad established perspectives to bear upon them, and forging new tools as well.

Charles D. Raab is Professor of Government in the University of Edinburgh, and co-Director of CRISP (Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy). He co-authored (with C. Bennett) The Governance of Privacy: Policy Instruments in Global Perspective and served as Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution for their investigation resulting in Surveillance: Citizens and the State (2009).