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c/o Dipartimento di Scienze politiche
Università degli Studi di Perugia

Via Pascoli, 20
06123 Perugia
VI, 2/2011

Surveillance and Democracy: An unsettled relationship[*]

Articolo pubblicato nella sezione La politica e le nuove tecnologie della comunicazione.

mercoledì 13 giugno 2012 22:42

Surveillance, when positioned on a normative continuum, tends to sit at the polar opposite of democracy. Democracy rests with the angels, signifying all that is laudable and promising about government. At the other extreme lurks surveillance; a sinister force that threatens personal liberties. What could be more self-evident than the fact that surveillance curtails personal freedoms, inhibits democracy, and ultimately leads to totalitarianism (Haggerty 2009; Rule 2007)? [.] A vital aspect of democratic governance with a direct bearing on surveillance issues is that democracies are accountable to their citizens, meaning that they have to produce accounts for various constituencies (the media, legislature, citizens), and also that governments face a meaningful prospect of sanction if they act illegally. Accountability therefore implies that citizens need access to a range of information about the actions of their representatives and a free press to assess the behavior of their government. Civil liberties and human-rights legislation aim to protect such arrangements and strike an appropriate balance between competing interests. Liberal democracies consequently emphasize individual rights, as the smooth operation of a democratic systems is presumably enhanced when we protect rights of communication and democratic participation. The rights pertaining to privacy and freedom of expression therefore have pride of place in discussions about surveillance. Democracy can also be associated with a more substantive ends-orientation, meaning that democratic governments are evaluated on the degree to which they provide citizens with security of the person and of his or her possessions.
Based on such an understanding, democratic governments are expected to improve citizens' quality of life, an ambition that is either implicit in the concept of democracy itself or a natural by-product of including the people in policy considerations and political rhetoric. This more tangible understanding of democracy also means that many forms of social critique are themselves founded on a comprehensive notion of democracy. So, for example, irrespective of whether a citizen lambastes her government because its institutions have not followed proper procedures, because some groups unfairly bear the burden of social policies or because the rights of identifiable minorities have been downgraded, all such critiques can be formulated as faulting the government for failing to live up to a democratic ideal. The upshot is that democracy, understood as a flexible and historically specific standard for evaluating what is just, fair and right, has increasingly become the rhetorical ground from which many, if not most, social criticisms are launched in liberal societies. Turning our attention from democracy to surveillance, we also find a series of ambiguities at play. Definitionally, surveillance involves assorted forms of monitoring, typically for the ultimate purpose of intervening in the world.
While this definition is very broad, it usefully moves us beyond the common fixation on cameras and espionage, which is what tends to immediately come to mind when thinking about surveillance. Difficulties start to emerge, however, when we move beyond precise definitions and try to contemplate the enormous range and variability of surveillance practices that now operate. The most familiar and longstanding of these are the routine forms of interpersonal scrutiny which are an inevitable component of human interaction (Goffman 1959). Today, such informal face-to-face scrutiny has been augmented by a raft of initiatives designed to make people more transparent. Indeed, surveillance is now the dominant organizing practice of late modernity, and is used for a multitude of widely divergent governmental projects, by turns both laudable and disconcerting (Gandy 1993; Haggerty and Ericson 2006; Hier and Greenberg 2007; Lyon 2007).
Western nations are undergoing a world-historical transformation in the dynamics of social visibility. Institutions are capitalizing on technologically augmented scrutiny of different categories of people (citizens, motorists, workers, students, consumers, international travellers, military adversaries, welfare recipients, and assorted other groupings) to enhance such things as rational governance, corporate profit, social regulation, entertainment and military conquest. We can appreciate the centrality of surveillance to organizational and epistemological endeavourers if we simply step back and survey how various manifestations of watching have become a central institutional preoccupation. Just a quick listing of surveillance-related initiatives culled from the newspaper would include databases, espionage, military satellites, bureaucratic files, Internet monitoring, and assorted personal spying devices.

The picture becomes even murkier when we realize that these different practices and technologies can be used for highly variable projects of control, regulation, care, governance, scientific advancement, profit, entertainment, and the like. A global community of scholars has produced excellent case studies of the dynamics and normative implications of different surveillance practices, but run into more difficulty when it tries to make generalizations about surveillance tout court (Haggerty and Ericson 2006), often because the surveillance dynamics and implications of, say, spy satellites, are wildly different from those of DNA testing.
As citizens start to become attuned to the pervasiveness of surveillance, we suspect that they will recognize that most Western nations would now qualify as surveillance societies given the centrality of surveillance to myriad institutional practices (Murakami Wood 2009). This is itself related to what appears to be a fairly remarkable change in public sentiments. The existence of such things as CCTV cameras on the streets, transponders in cars, and detailed mobile-phone records, have made monitoring a routine and often prosaic attribute of social existence. While there is public debate on surveillance's excesses, the envelope has been pushed strongly in the direction of normalized and routinized surveillance.
As the world becomes increasingly transparent to public and private agencies alike, what does this mean for key attributes of democratic practice, such as civil liberties, political dialogue, citizenship and trust in political authority? Does a society configured for surveillance give rise to nightmare totalitarian scenarios, or, alternatively, offer unprecedented opportunities to care for our most needy and foster an inclusive public sphere?
The remainder of this chapter sets the stage for this collection by drawing attention to some of the central themes in the relationship between surveillance and democracy. While we could not begin to address the full scope of issues involved, we have highlighted some topics that repeatedly emerge in such discussions. We do so by dividing our comments into three parts. First, we analyze some of the ways that surveillance can inhibit democracy. We then discuss how surveillance in different forms can, perhaps paradoxically, be a key precondition or vital attribute of democratic processes. Our third section touches upon the question of whether the opportunities for democratic practices to shape surveillance dynamics are receding [.].

Surveillance as corrosive barrier

By far the most common way that commentators understand the relationship between surveillance and democracy is as surveillance hindering democracy, alternately inhibiting the growth of representative institutions, corroding established democratic traditions and undermining patterns of sociability and trust that are essential preconditions for fostering democratic practice. The fascist governments of the twentieth century and the new millennia's totalitarian states provide the most telling examples of how massive state conducted surveillance can become a tool of state repression. Ostensibly democratic nations have also been guilty of such behavior, and there are too many examples to begin to list them all here. Some of the more infamous examples include the American Cold-War scrutiny of labor organizations, Civil Rights activists and the more recent attention that many Western nations are directing at Muslim groups.
Such monitoring is typically framed and criticized from within a liberal framework which distinguishes between a public realm of political action and a private sphere of personal fulfilment and family intimacy. Intrusive state surveillance can destroy that distinction, undermining the private realm and in so doing limiting a person's ability to develop a unique sense of self and of his or her political interests. Such scrutiny can also have more straightforward implications for democracy. Citizens need a space comparatively free of governmental oversight if they are to engage in political action. Surveillance is therefore anti-democratic to the extent that it prevents individuals from coming together to identify common interests, forge alliances and develop political strategies. Such a result is sometimes the explicit aim of conducting surveillance, or alternatively, can be an unintended by-product of monitoring. In either scenario, such surveillance can corrode the interpersonal trust required for democratic governance (Tilly 2005).
Intrusive surveillance is typically used by political elites to suppress different viewpoints and in so doing limit the possibility for alternative political constituencies to emerge or become effective. As such, surveillance can be one component in wider practices of state censorship. Keeping in mind how vital open public debate and a free press are for democratic governance, surveillance that operates to quench dissent can have disastrous consequences for the prospect of nurturing a democratic public sphere (Habermas 1989). Consequently, surveillance can not only violate personal privacy, but can inhibit freedom of expression. Today, there is much concern about how surveillance might chill democratic participation. As citizens become more attuned to the increased transparency of their actions and communications, recognizing that there is an (always unknowable) potential that in the future officials will act upon things they said or did, people will self-censor, withdraw from public life, and in so doing render democratic debate and participation anaemic.
In thinking about these dangers, activists and academics are understandably fixated on the monitoring capabilities of contemporary information technologies. It is worth remembering, however, that some of the most manifestly repressive and anti-democratic forms of state surveillance - such as was conducted by East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi - did not rely on cutting-edge technologies, but instead drew upon extensive networks of informers; common citizens who were either enticed or coerced into informing on others (Schmeidel 2008). We mention this as a reminder of the need to foreground ongoing efforts by the state's security establishment to initiate and coordinate forms of interpersonal monitoring. Perhaps the most well known recent initiative was the Bush administration's ill-fated proposal in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to create Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System). This legislation would have empowered a wide array of American citizens (postal employees, telephone repair workers, cable installers, and the like) to report suspicious behavior of citizens to the federal government. The scale of that program would have meant that the United States would «have a higher percentage of citizen informants than the former East Germany through the infamous Stasi secret police» (Goldstein 2002). Another reason to keep in mind the dynamics of state-coordinated interpersonal scrutiny is because they provide the most familiar and well chronicled example of how repressive state surveillance can create anti-democratic legacies. Citizens of nations trying to transition from a totalitarian past to a more democratic future often find themselves confronting revelations that they were spied on by family, friends, and lovers on behalf of the previous regime. Beyond the destructive effects that such discoveries can have on communities, they have also created a context in Eastern Europe where established interests have fortified their hold on power by blackmailing prior informants (Funder 2003; Garton Ash 1997; Samatas 2007).
Enhancements in information technologies have prompted their own surveillance-related anxieties. Beyond the well-documented fears about how such systems allow for intensified monitoring of citizens, making them transparent to a previously unimaginable degree while also allowing for complex behavior modeling, there is also a concern about how new forms of surveillance, particularly dataveillance (Garfinkel 2000), tend to disaggregate populations. Initially developed in the private sector, such monitoring is used by corporations seeking to carve out precise market segments in order to maximize the effectives of their marketing and to orient their businesses model to identifiable consumer niches. In the process, the notion of a singular consumer has given way to a proliferation of detailed market segments that are the product of ongoing surveillance of consumer purchases, survey responses and service use patterns (Gandy 1993; Turow 1997; Turow 2007).
In recent years this form of surveillance has also moved into the public realm, being used to target service delivery or in the increasingly unrelenting practice of electioneering. As such disaggregating forms of surveillance move into the electoral sphere there is a danger that standards of equal citizenship are starting to evaporate. Individualizing surveillance fractures the aggregate public - leading to increasingly narrow political appeals. Such surveillance subtly changes how people are conceived of within a democratic system, moving from a notion of citizen to one of consumer. In the process the incentive to contemplate the aggregate needs of the citizenry recedes, in favor of appealing to the desires of disproportionately significant electoral niches.
The second difficulty that this disaggregating tendency of surveillance poses for democracy is that it also fosters a form of informational narrowcasting. As citizens come to be identified with specific market or political niches, the tendency both for the citizen and for informational systems is towards replication. That is, the surveillance system identifies their existing preferences and serves them more of the same: the same news, political appeals, and the like, cumulatively limiting the variety of information to which citizens are exposed (Sustein 2001). Such a development is particularly disconcerting given that it works against the desire to nurture an electorate with a broad vision and sensitivity to other points of view.

Surveillance as necessary, inevitable or desirable?

While much public commentary focuses on the challenges that new forms of surveillance pose for democracy, there is also a sense that surveillance, when understood broadly, is both an inevitable attribute of democracy and a key component of liberal forms of governance. Indeed, even among civil libertarians most concerned about, for example, police surveillance, few would argue that the police should completely eschew wire taps, informants, undercover work and other comparable components of police work. Such surveillance is now required, given that it is near impossible to penetrate complex criminal organizations through more traditional police work. Moreover, it is often imperative for a functioning democracy to curtail the illegal behaviors that are investigated using such measures, as these activities can pose a threat to democratic institutions. For the police, the ongoing challenge is to balance their need for surveillance against the often-corrosive consequences of such measures.
Not every individual who physically resides in a state's territory is necessarily entitled to the same democratic rights. States discriminate amongst members of the population to determine who can and cannot vote, who is to be afforded additional rights and entitlements, and so on. The state's need to identify citizens and make discriminations among the population has contributed to the growth of informational systems that essentially create the informational structures of citizenship. Whether in a democratic nation or elsewhere, citizenship is marked by a host of identity documents, and to be a citizen is to be identified as such on the appropriate bureaucratic systems (Groebner 2007; Torpey 2000).
The extent to which such officially recognized citizens can provide politicians with meaningful or binding direction is today blunted by many factors. The sheer scale of contemporary societies makes it impossible for the entire polity to physically come together to debate issues and cast their vote. The rise of the party system was at least partly a response to this issue of scale, but it also kept citizens several steps removed from the levers of power. These and comparable developments have produced a sense that democratic participation, even in the most exemplary democratic societies, has become thin and formulaic. Public input is often reduced to an intermittent opportunity to choose parties or leaders, something that can amount to choice among barely distinguishable options. Low levels of voter turnout in many of the world's ostensibly leading democracies testify to the public apathy that such a situation can produce.
A series of countervailing developments have introduced opportunities for citizens' views to play a more direct role in shaping political decisions or, more cynically, becoming the target of conscious political manipulation. Governance, particularly in its liberal form, depends on knowledge and is contingent on producing official, typically quantified, facts (Haggerty 2001; Rose 1999). Before programming is initiated both problematic situations and problem people must ideally be known, and known in empirical detail. As Scott (1998) has accentuated, the state has a built-in tendency to embrace a form of optics conductive to ways of making problems legible to centralized authorities, culminating in efforts to document, standardize and register the social (and natural) world. Hence, we experience the routine deployment of a style of political discourse and practice that privileges appeals to certain forms of empirical facts perceived to be actionable by government officials. These facts are typically the product of a surveillance infrastructure.
Official attempts to learn about a problem involve establishing or drawing upon an attendant surveillance regime. Fears of a pandemic prompt new forms of disease surveillance. If the problem is adolescents using drugs, parents can compel their progeny to urinate in a bottle so that they can use home drugtesting kits to scrutinize their behavior (Moore and Haggerty 2001), and so on. In each instance a specific problematization prompts a political demand for more and better governmentally relevant knowledge, which, in turn, depends upon a specific monitoring regime. In many cases the causal arrow points in the opposite direction, as proponents of new surveillance technologies work to foster an official interest in the type of knowledge that their devices can generate. The point is that surveillance is an inevitable facet in producing governmentally relevant knowledge.
One of the most important of these surveillance infrastructures for the operation of contemporary governmental practices is the public opinion polling industry that now feeds an insatiable political machine. While there were public opinion polls as early as the 1820s, the practice only proliferated in Western societies in the 1940s with the pioneering work of George Gallup (Herbst 1993; Page 2006). While few would suggest that these surveys represent an ideal way for political authorities to learn about citizens' views, the knowledge that they generate has nonetheless fundamentally altered political dynamics in Western nations, and they are now an inescapable attribute of policy development and campaigning. Indeed, beyond the intermittent exercise of the vote, opinion surveys are now the most significant and institutionalized form of political knowledge generated about citizens' attitudes and preferences.
The rise of the survey industry was itself contingent on exponential increases in computing power. As networked computers have become a common household item, they have also become a groundbreaking political technology. We are still in the midst of the transformations flowing from the embrace of these tools, so it is difficult to discern the precise contours of how computers have shaped and will continue to shape politics. Few, however, doubt that their impact will be anything less than monumental - which is not necessarily the same as being desirable. For some, computers are harbingers of a new era of democratic participation, given their combined ability to provide near immediate feedback on policy options while allowing officials to scrutinize individual's online behavior to ascertain public preferences and priorities. As computers become more interactive, and as individual citizens (often inadvertently) come to signify more about their preferences, desires and inclinations through their daily electronically recorded activities, policy will inevitably be informed by the knowledge generated about such actions. For the optimists, these changes promise to usher in a world of greater democratic practice and political accountability.
Others are less sanguine about these developments, suggesting that the utopians are naïve about the real-world dynamics of power and are initiating yet another round of technocentric hyperbole in celebrating the emancipator political potential of computers. Instead of seeing greater political participation altering the nature of established social hierarchies, critics suggest that the surveillance capacities inherent in computers allow private institutions and political interests to cynically manipulate the populous, offering in the guise of "interactivity" little more than a series of highly circumscribed choices crafted by elites and powerful special-interest groups about largely inconsequential matters (Andrejevic 2007).
In democracies there is an expectation that citizens will be able to scrutinize governmental affairs. Under the rubric of «accountability», a proliferating number of bureaucratic monitoring systems have been established, contributing to the normatively ambiguous rise of an audit society (Power 1997). Both public and private institutions are under increasing pressure to provide formal accounts of their actions, something that also relies on systems designed to scrutinize personal behavior and institutional routines. This quest for political visibility has also come at a cost, as auditing, for example, can distort organizational mandates and draw attention to phenomena simply because they are easily measured.
Perhaps the most extreme argument for the necessity or desirability of surveillance to contemporary democratic systems is provided by David Brin (1998) in his book The Transparent Society. Brin starts from the assumption that surveillance is becoming ubiquitous. In such a context appeals to privacy tend to reinforce a form of non-reciprocal visibility, with authorities and elites being able to secure some limited privacy protection while the lives of the masses are opened up to ever-greater scrutiny. Brin's provocative proposal is for a form of radical transparency, a situation whereby all parties would have equal access to all of the information generated by different surveillance and administrative systems. The key point is that the watchers would be as open to scrutiny as the common citizen. Rather than presenting this as a dystopia, Brin sees this as a measure that could reduce the positional advantage elites have in maintaining their privacy while also allowing for the development of reciprocal surveillance norms which would dictate when it is and is not appropriate to examine revealing information. While Brin might be guilty of trying to make a virtue out of a necessity, his focus on the non-reciprocal nature of visibility accentuates one of the most recurrent concerns about contemporary surveillance.

Limits to democratic oversight

Greater democratization often appears to be a panacea for individuals concerned about the continuing expansion of surveillance; democracy promises to introduce systems of accountability that will provide some bulwark against our nonchalant drift towards a despotic surveillance society. With that in mind, we conclude our brief introduction on a regrettably despondent note, accentuating some of the factors that limit the prospect for meaningful democratic accountability as it pertains to surveillance.
The first point to note is that today many surveillance developments are technological. Groundbreaking surveillance initiatives emerge out of laboratories with each new imputation of computer software or hardware. These augmented technological capacities are only rarely seen as necessitating explicit policy decisions, and as such disperse into society with little or no official political discussion. Or, alternatively, the comparatively slow timelines of electoral politics often ensure that any formal scrutiny of the dangers or desirability of surveillance technologies only occurs long after the expansion of the surveillance measure is effectively a fait accompli.
By default, then, many of the far-reaching questions about how surveillance systems will be configured occur in organizational back regions amongst designers and engineers, and therefore do not benefit from the input of a wider range of representative constituencies. Sclove (1995) has drawn attention to this technological democratic deficit, and calls for greater public input at the earliest stages of system design. And while this is a laudable ambition, the prospect of bringing citizens into the design process confronts a host of pragmatic difficulties, not the least of which are established understandings of what constitutes relevant expertise in a technologized society.
Even when surveillance measures have been introduced by representative bodies this is no guarantee that these initiatives reflect the will of an informed and reasoned electorate. One of the more important dynamics in this regard concerns the long history whereby fundamental changes in surveillance practice and infrastructure have been initiated in times of national crisis. The most recent and telling example of this process occurred after 9/11 when many Western governments, the United States most prominently, passed omnibus legislation that introduced dramatic new surveillance measures justified as a means to enhance national security (Ball and Webster 2003; Haggerty and Gazso 2005; Lyon 2003). This legislation received almost no political debate, and was presented to the public in such a way that it was impossible to appreciate the full implications of the proposed changes. This, however, was just the latest in the longstanding practice of politicians embracing surveillance at times of heightened fear. At such junctures one is more apt to encounter nationalist jingoism than measured debate about the merits and dangers of turning the state's surveillance infrastructure on suspect populations. The example of 9/11 accentuates the issue of state secrets, which can also limit the democratic oversight of surveillance. While few would dispute the need for state secrets, particularly in matters of national security, their existence raises serious issues insofar as the public is precluded from accessing the information needed to judge the actions of its leaders. In terms of surveillance, this can include limiting access to information about the operational dynamics of established surveillance systems, or even simply denying the existence of specific surveillance schemes. Citizens are asked (or simply expected) to trust that their leaders will use this veil of secrecy to undertake actions that the public would approve of if they were privy to the specific details. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated time and again that this trust is often abused, and knowledge of past misconduct feeds a political climate infused with populist conspiracy theories (Fenster 2008). Indeed, one need not be paranoid to contemplate the prospect that, as surveillance measures are increasingly justified in terms of national security, a shadow security state is emerging- one empowered by surveillance, driven by a profit motive, cloaked in secrecy and unaccountable to traditional forms of democratic oversight.
A central dilemma in trying to establish democratic oversight of surveillance measures concerns larger dynamics in the international system of states and corporations. Over the past quarter century a neoliberal project of globalization has resulted in the steady decline of national sovereignty. One upshot is that the bodies which effectively govern a host of matters, including concrete affairs of security and surveillance, are effectively unaccountable to the citizens who will be subject to these policies. One example of this is the internationalization of domestic policy-making in the European Union where «around seventy per cent of new legislation in the UK originates in Brussels, where it is subject to the approval of a ministerial council drawn from all member states» (Beetham 2005: 59). This is itself part of what Vibert (2007) characterizes as the «rise of the unelected,» a process whereby assorted private institutions ranging from banks, international organizations and regulators operate a form of post-democratic governance.
The internationalization of surveillance can also occur more informally, as smaller states are pressured to bend to the sway of the surveillance-infused agendas of the remaining superpower and corporations aligned with its geopolitical aspirations. In the domain of realpolitik, small democratic nations can have little opportunity to resist the hegemony of major states and an increasingly international surveillance industrial complex. All of this points to one of the most intractable dilemmas pertaining to surveillance and democracy, which is the play of private corporations on the surveillance landscape. Democracy is not the operative principle of private companies, but these entitles initiate an ever greater percentage of surveillance measures. Moreover, with the ongoing corporate appropriation of the internet, assorted informational spaces where people spend an increasing amount of time socializing are being revealed to be legally private spaces, and not subject to principles of democratic accountability. In an era of globalization, it is hard to bring such companies under the sway of national interests, with the upshot being that large swathes of our lives are lived in the confines of surveillance-infused institutions where claims to democratic representation have no purchase.
All of the above could be read in many different ways. For the most optimistic, these developments can be interpreted as a self-evident case for why we need ever more democratic accountability on matters of surveillance. For the pessimist, this reads like a litany of reasons why the prospect of a democratic check on surveillance is receding to a vanishing point on the horizon. Irrespective of how one interprets these trends, it is undeniable that the issues of surveillance and democracy are now more unsettled than at any time in the recent past, making the need to address such concerns all the more compelling.


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[*] This is an excerpt from the introduction of K. HAGGERTY-M. SAMATAS (eds.), Surveillance and Democracy, Routledge, London 2010.