Electronic Surveillance

Broadly construed, surveillance is concerned with gathering and processing information. Usually, the goal of such practices is to intervene in some way to manage the objects of surveillance. Surveillance may be directed at humans or nonhumans (e.g., animals, viruses, commodities). While some forms of surveillance rely on the human senses only, others are enabled by technical means that extend these senses in various ways. Technically, enhanced surveillance can take nonelectronic and electronic forms. The former is made possible by devices such as binoculars or a telescope, for example, while the latter depends on electronic technologies and infrastructures such as computers, satellites, and digital networks. Although surveillance has always been a feature of social systems, it is the ubiquity of electronic-based information gathering and processing practices that has positioned surveillance as a central constitutive feature of modern contemporary societies. Indeed, many commentators claim that we live in a “surveillance society” precisely because myriad forms of electronic surveillance are now deeply embedded in virtually every sphere of human activity. This entry focuses on the proliferation of electronic surveillance and its implications.

Proliferation of Electronic Surveillance

One way to grasp the ubiquity of electronic surveillance in contemporary society is to consider all the instances of this kind of surveillance one would encounter in a typical 1-week period. The log will likely burgeon with entries: the digital traces left when using ATMs and your debit card, your smartphone’s continuous tracking of your location and messages, the applications on your smartphone generating detailed data each time you use them (and sometimes when you are not using them), the web browser’s storage of your Internet search queries and sending the data to websites concerning your software usage, and the numerous occasions you were observed by video cameras whether at work, in stores, on the sidewalk, or at other public spaces. Additional log entries may include your employer’s remote scan of your work computer, the update made to your digitized medical record after visiting the doctor, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter creating records of your interactions with others, and your wearable fitness device collecting data on your weight, steps taken per day, sleep quality, calories burned, and perhaps GPS location. Moreover, your car’s online computer routinely records your location, performance, and driving practices, and when reading an e-book on an e-reading device, the e-book and e-reader companies may be monitoring how quickly you read, whether you finished the book, and whether you highlighted certain passages.

While technological developments have helped fuel the proliferation of electronic surveillance, it is important to understand that various imperatives, logics, agendas, and choices have shaped these developments and their effects. Consider, for example, the domain of consumption. Private enterprises not only took advantage of the advent of modern computing to enhance their information collection and processing practices, but their desire to collect and analyze more personal information in order to facilitate greater management of consumption was an important factor driving the trend toward increasingly sophisticated and affordable computing. This, in turn, made possible the emergence of “database marketing” in the 1980s. This new form of targeted marketing involved companies using computing power to collect, meld, and analyze vast amounts of demographic, psychographic, and lifestyle information with the goal of profiling and sorting groups of consumers into various marketable categories as well as into “high-quality” and “low-quality” targets of opportunity. More recently, a plethora of online enterprises have emerged to serve the corporate sector’s appetite for even more personal information. Taking advantage of the emergence of the Internet and the decision to privatize and commercialize it, these enterprises have invested in the development and deployment of tracking technologies. This business model has resulted in a surveillance-intensive Internet architecture that yields a cornucopia of fine-grained information on users’ interactions with and migration across websites. Similarly, the proliferation of electronic surveillance in other institutional spheres such as the workplace, education, health, policing and crime control, and national security have been driven by the interplay between technology developments and the social contexts within which these developments arise and are deployed.

At the same time, as electronic surveillance has suffused through these various domains, information flows across the domains have increased greatly. Certain private sector enterprises routinely use government-collected data to build consumer profiles that can be used for marketing. Police agencies regularly acquire personal information collected and stockpiled by banks, airlines, libraries, telecommunication companies, and Internet service providers. This is often made possible by the recalibration of laws and regulations. For example, all European Union member states require telephone companies and Internet service providers to store data about their customers’ communications and location for police access. The revelations by Edward Snowden made clear how much the U.S. National Security Agency relies on corporations to monitor electronic communications on a massive scale. In one program, telecommunication companies provided all customers’ call information, including the time, location, and duration of calls, on a daily basis for years. Through another program, the National Security Agency sought to compel the provision of large volumes of personal data by Internet companies like Google and Facebook. In the post-9/11 era, U.S. intelligence agencies have also become prized customers of database companies such as Axciom, Choicepoint, and LexisNexis, which maintain billions of records on hundreds of millions of Americans. This access to private sector information troves is arguably an end run around the Privacy Act of 1974, which prevents government agencies from collecting such information.


It is difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a general conclusion concerning the social implications of the proliferation of electronic surveillance in contemporary society. This is because, as Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson (2005)

This suggests that assessments of the impact of electronic surveillance should be based on an examination of the dynamics and factors involved in specific surveillance projects: What is the power relationship between the surveiller and the surveilled? What kind of information is being collected and toward what ends? What rules, if any, apply to information collection, storage, and sharing? If there are rules, how transparent are they? Yet to fully grasp the role of electronic surveillance in social life, a bird’s-eye perspective must complement project-specific evaluations. This perspective recognizes that in the coming decades, the presence of electronic surveillance, in familiar and new forms, will likely become evermore present in all spheres of everyday life. To what extent will this change the nature of society? What will your daily log of electronic surveillance encounters contain in 30 years?

Peter Shields

See also Advertising and Marketing Research ; ATM Cards ; Cell Phone Tracking ; Facebook ; Google ; National Security Agency Leaks ; Privacy, Internet

Further Readings

Ball, Kirstie,et al.,eds. Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.

Haggerty, Kevin and Richard Ericson, eds. The New Politics of Surveillance and Visibility. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Marx, Gary. “What’s New About the ‘New Surveillance’? Classifying for Change and Continuity.” Surveillance & Society, v.1/1 (2002).