Mass surveillance

Mass surveillance is the surveillance of all or a substantial fraction of the entire population. Mass surveillance may be done either with or without the consent of those under surveillance, and may or may not be in their interest. For example, the monitoring of the population for disease in epidemiology, would generally be viewed as a benign form of mass surveillance, but a network of secret police informers would not.


Voluntary mass surveillance

One of the most common forms of voluntary mass surveillance is carried out by commercial organisations. Many people are willing to join loyalty card programs, trading their personal information and surveillance of their shopping habits in exchange for a discount on their groceries, although original prices may just be increased to ensure your participation in the program.

Involuntary mass surveillance

As a result of the digital revolution, many aspects of life are now captured and stored in digital form. Concern has been expressed that governments may use this information to conduct mass surveillance on their populations.

United Kingdom

Amongst the western democracies, the United Kingdom is perhaps the country subject to the most surveillance. Indeed, in 2004 the Government's own Information Commissioner, talking about the proposed British national identity database stated, "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society." Other databases causing him concern are the National Child Database, the Office for National Statistics' Citizenís Information Project, and the NHS National Programme for IT.

In 2004 it is estimated that the country is monitored by some four million CCTV cameras, some with a facial recognition capacity, with practically all town centres under surveillance. Serious concerns have been raised that the facial biometric information which will be stored on a central database through the ID Card scheme could be linked to facial recognition systems and state-owned CCTV cameras to identify individuals anywhere in the UK, or even to compile a database of wanted citizens' movements without their knowledge or consent. Currently, in the London Borough of Westminster, microphones are being fitted next to CCTV cameras. Westminster council claims that they are simply part of an initiative against urban noise, and will not "be used to snoop", but comments from a council spokesman appear to imply that they have been deliberately designed to capture an audio stream alongside the video stream, rather than simply reporting noise levels. [1] (

The British Police hold records of 5.5 million fingerprints and 2.5 million DNA samples. In London, the Oyster card payment system [2] ( tracks the movement of individual people through the public transport system, while the London Congestion Charge uses computer imaging to track car number plates. There are also plans to track all road vehicles nationally using vehicle telematics systems for road charging (see vehicle excise duty), while in March 2005 plans were announced to create a nationwide system of automatic number plate recognition cameras.

United States

In the USA, there are concerns that the adoption of the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, which plans to collate criminal histories, driver's license data, vehicle registration records, and significant amounts of other data, will effectively revive the (notionally) unfunded Total Information Awareness initiative to give centralized access to the records of the US population.

East Germany

Before the Digital Revolution, one of the world's biggest mass surveillance operations was carried out by the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany. By the time the state collapsed in 1989, the Stasi had built up an estimated civilian network of 300,000 informants (approximately one in fifty of the population), who monitored politically "incorrect" behaviour among other citizens.

Literature and movies critical of mass surveillance

  • The Transparent Society by David Brin, discusses various scenarios for the future considering the spread of cheap web-cameras, increases in government security initiatives, and the possible death of encryption if quantum computing becomes reality
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel by George Orwell depicting life under an omnipresent totalitarian state
  • Minority Report, a story by Philip K. Dick about a society that arrests people for crimes they have yet to commit (made into a movie in 2002)
  • Brazil, a film by Terry Gilliam depicting an oppressive total information awareness society
  • Pizza (, a short film by ACLU depicting ordering pizza by phone in a Total Surveillance Society.
  • Discipline and Punish by the critical theorist Michel Foucault is generally taken as being one of the paradigmatic works on theories of surveillance and discipline

  • The Light of Other Days is a science-fiction book that praises mass surveillance, under the condition that it is available to everyone. It shows a world in which a total lack of privacy results in a decrease in corruption and crime.

See also

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