The Snowden Stakes: Challenges for Understanding Surveillance Today

David Lyon


The drip-feed disclosures about state surveillance following Edward Snowden’s dramatic departure from his NSA contractor, Booz Allen, carrying over one million revealing files, have ired some and prompted some serious heart-searching in others.  One of the challenges is to those who engage in surveillance studies. Three kinds of issues present themselves: One, research disregard: responses to the revelations show a surprising lack of understanding of the large-scale multi-faceted panoply of surveillance that has been constructed over the past 40 years or so that includes but is far from exhausted by state surveillance itself. Two, research deficits: we find that a number of crucial areas require much more research. These include the role of physical conduits including fibre-optic cables within circuits or power, of global networks of security and intelligence professionals, and of the minutiae of everyday social media practices. Three, research direction: the kinds of surveillance that have developed over several decades are heavily dependent on the digital – and, increasingly, on so-called big data -- but also extend beyond it. However, if there is a key issue raised by the Snowden revelations, it is the future of the internet. Information and its central conduits have become an unprecedented arena of political struggle, centred on surveillance and privacy. Those concepts themselves require rethinking.

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