Criticising Surveillance and Surveillance Critique: Why privacy and humanism are necessary but insufficient

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Sun-ha Hong


The current debate on surveillance, both academic and public, is constantly tempted towards a ‘negative’ criticism of present surveillance systems. In contrast, a ‘positive’ critique would be one which seeks to present alternative ways of thinking, evaluating, and even undertaking surveillance. Surveillance discourse today propagates a host of normative claims about what is admissible as ‘true’, ‘probable’, ‘efficient’ – based upon which it cannot fail to justify itself. A positive critique questions and subverts this epistemological foundation. It believes that surveillance must be held accountable by terms other than those of its own making. The objective is an open debate not only about ‘surveillance or not’, but the possibility of ‘another surveillance’.


To demonstrate the necessity of this shift, I first examine two existing frames of criticism. Privacy and humanism (appeal to human rights, freedoms and decency) are necessary but insufficient tools for positive critique. They implicitly accept surveillance’s bargain of trade-offs: the benefit of security ‘measured’ against the cost of rights. To demonstrate paths towards positive critique, I analyse risk and security: two ‘load-bearing’ concepts that ground existing rationalisations of surveillance – and thus are ‘openings’ for reforming those evaluative paradigms and rigged bargains on offer today.

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Author Biography

Sun-ha Hong, MIT

Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, MIT