Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Mortimer Sellers, Stephan Kirste

Surveillance Society

  • Takehiro OhyaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_137-2


Along with rapid development of information technology, mechanisms to view, record, and analyze our daily lives have become increasingly popular, cheap, and widespread. Our life events are filmed through video recording like closed-circuit television (CCTV/surveillance camera) or “dashcams” (video event data recorders) to record the outside view from a car’s dashboard. Additionally, every economic transaction, for instance, using a credit card on the Web or riding a bus with an integrated circuit card (ICC) is now processed on line and frequently aggregated as consumption records for statistical marketing data, or else individualized through digital IDs to analyze one’s identity through profiling measures (e.g., customer number or national identity such as a Social Security Number in the United States or a “my number,” the 12-digit Social Security and Tax Number in Japan). For instance, Amazon.com can estimate your tastes or preferences based on your record of purchase, while the government may predict your movement from the pile of CCTV images taken on the road. We are under continuous and universal surveillance, which David Lyon called the “surveillance society” (Lyon 2001).

Origin of Surveillance Society

According to Lyon, sociologist Gary T. Marx first coined the term “surveillance society” in 1985, to warn about the potential emergence of Orwellian dystopia through rapidly growing computer technology. The origin of the surveillance society, thus, was assumed to be in governments’ desire to monitor and control their citizens, with improved efficacy through information technology, as depicted in George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell 1949). Surveillance here mainly indicates one-directional enforcement from government to citizen, which is usually disliked and avoided, if possible.

Surveillance in Reality

Lyon, however, observes that in reality surveillance has been pervasive in our society, being so multidirectional as to reconfigure our time-space environment. “The concept of surveillance society denotes a situation in which disembodied surveillance has become societally pervasive… the notion of surveillance society indicates that surveillance activities have long since spilled over the edges of government bureaucracy to flood every conceivable social conduit” (Lyon 2001: 33, original emphasis).

From this viewpoint, Lyon emphasized the three following elements of surveillance society.
  1. 1.

    Surveillance of others has become very widespread and universal, as shown in the quantitative increase of CCTVs. In Japan, for instance, nearly five million CCTVs were installed by 2018, The Nikkei Business estimated (November 13, 2018). This amounted to a camera per approximately 24 people.

  2. 2.

    Users of surveillance technology, however, have also become widespread not only among governments and similar public organizations, but many private entities as companies, associations, or even individual persons. In Japan, for instance, most “dashcams” are sold for use in average citizens’ private cars, while the vast majority of CCTVs are installed in stores, shopping malls, or railway stations, by owners who usually are private companies or associations. Contrary to the Orwellian nightmare in earlier twentieth century, or the reality of spying and watching in many totalitarian regimes as depicted in the film Das Leben der Anderen (von Donnersmarck 2006), surveillance is not just a tool for governments to control their citizens arbitrarily, but a widespread and common measure for private persons and organizations to secure their safety or property and to enhance the efficiency of their businesses. At the same time, since the improvement of business efficacy increases not only the companies’ benefits but also serves customers by enabling price discounts or service refinements, private surveillance could be welcomed from its very target. In many cases, we find such services as Amazon’s recommendations or Google’s search suggestions to be useful and customer-friendly. Therefore, surveillance is frequently introduced by private entities seeking appropriate ways to establish mutually beneficial relationships with their customers or clients. We see each other, for our own good, in this surveillance society.

  3. 3.

    However, Lyon notes that in surveillance society we experience our “body” disappeared, since each of us is captured in records that are reduced to a certain dataset, and not considered as an individual: “[F]or the vast majority of relationships, especially those dependent on computer-based communication of data, embodied persons have vanished” (Lyon 2001: 15). The monitoring target has shifted from our visible bodies to “personal traces” (Lyon 2001: 15), because of the increasing difficulty of catching the former. We are now seen as a combination of visible and countable elements, not as a person with integrity. This concern could be seen as resonant with the problem of identity in liquid modernity, as discussed by Zygmund Bauman (2000, 2004).

    Through this disembodiment, the time and space structure that surrounds us has been reconfigured. For instance, through wiretapping, the police can obtain my opinion on certain issues without physically intruding into my personal space. In the United States, for instance, wiretapping was not considered privacy infringement, as judged in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). This judgment, however, was reversed in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), which opined that electronic communication is included in the “reasonable expectation of privacy” protected under the 14th amendment of the US constitution. Without meeting directly to shake hands, “a token of trust, such as a personal identification number, became a proxy for the kind of trust that arise from an ongoing relationship of co-present persons” (Lyon 2001: 16). The public-private dichotomy of space, typically, blurred to open the possibility of introducing universal surveillance.


Problems in Surveillance Society

Thus, the problem of surveillance society consists of three elements: (1) Overall usage of surveillance technology has increased both in quantity and quality, (2) different types of surveillance agents have enhanced surveillance to improve the efficiency and utility of their businesses, and (3) for that reason, targets of their services, typically the general public, welcome such surveillance immersion, whereas minorities or those who have sensitive conditions are concerned about it. The dialogue between Bauman and Lyon (2013), for instance, recognizes the last point as the danger that the majority can adopt certain problematic policy according to their will.

When Lawrence Lessig observed, although not explicitly, in his CODE (Lessig 2006) that digital surveillance transfers the burden of proof from the agent of surveillance to its target, he also attempted to indict surveillance society. “The burden is on you, the monitored, first to establish your innocence, and second to assure who might see these ambiguous facts that you are innocent” (Lessig 2006: 218). For Lessig, “digital” surveillance is special due to its exemption from “the imperfection of monitoring technology” (Lessig 2006: 209).

However, this concern over endangering human rights, typically privacy, is reflected not only in academic debate but in the introduction of personal data protection law in many jurisdictions. An example is the Personal Data Protection Act of Japan (act no. 57 of 2003), which could be augmented with the right to erasure. Another example is the right to deny automatic profiling (Article 22, automated individual decision-making, including profiling) in the current enactment of the new European Union rule on data protection (General Data Protection Regulation; Regulation (EU) 2016/679, 27 April 2016).

Future of Surveillance

The development of surveillance in society, however, has and will be escalated faster year by year. Government surveillance has intensified globally, mainly for security reasons, in the struggle with terrorism threats after the September 11 attacks in the United States (Lyon 2003). The immigration flows both because of economic globalization and state instability in the Middle East (including the internal warfare in Syria, IS-related problems, and distressed recovery of governmental function in Iraq and Afghanistan) may have enhanced this tendency, which also encompasses successive terrorisms in Norway (July 2011) and Paris (January and November 2015).

Private surveillance has shared this trend with an increasing need for emerging AI (artificial intelligence) and robot technology. For the automatic driving of a car to work, for instance, it must be necessary to gather information on the surrounding environment, including movements of other cars and passers-by, and to record them to solve legal conflicts involving possible car accidents. In this case, surveillance is a necessary condition for us to establish a fair and just allocation system of liability under the ever-developing engineering.


The rapid development of information technology, and thus, growth of monitoring, seems to be impossible to suppress or stop. At the same time, the general public is likely to condemn inhibition of technology and monitoring because of the utility they provide. Allowing their unchecked autonomous evolution, however, will cause much privacy concern, especially for minorities; indeed, such problems may not be visible to mainstream society. Since private entities conduct most surveillance, compliance with the appropriate privacy or human rights laws might not occur. Moreover, citizens have few effective measures to control such activities.

The central field of discussion is moving, or at least shall move, from ethical evaluation of surveillance generally as to whether certain technology is good or bad, to possible and effective measures to control information gathered from surveillance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of LawKeio UniversityTokyoJapan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tetsu Sakurai
    • 1
  1. 1.Graduate School of Intercultural StudiesKobe UniversityKobeJapan