A social movement for privacy/against surveillance? Some difficulties in engendering mass resistance in a land of twitter and tweets.

Author:Huey, Laura
Position::Somebody's Watching Me: Surveillance and Privacy in an Age of National Insecurity

Despite increased awareness of both privacy and surveillance issues and the forms of resistance frequently generated, little attention has been paid to the failure of issue advocates to spawn a larger pro-privacy/anti-surveillance movement in North America. In this paper, I examine three inter-related factors that I see as potentially inhibiting the generation of a pro-privacy/anti-surveillance social movement in North America. Drawing on social movements theory, I suggest that those seeking to develop such a social movement need to." (1) demonstrate to a wider audience that a problem exists that requires individual and collective action; (2) carefully consider how to frame the problem and, thus, the nature of the movement," and (3) set careful boundaries to delimit the nature and scope of the problem.


    It has become somewhat commonplace to say that the volume and configuration of surveillance within modern societies has increased significantly over the past few decades. What has been less well discussed, within both popular and academic discourse, is the extent to which such practices generate resistance. From public debates over national identity cards to technologies and programs that profile suspected terrorists to community stakeholder battles over the use of CCTV in public spaces, surveillancebased practices and regimes are clearly contested political territory. A quick scan of such activities in North America reveals an interesting fact that says much about the extent to which surveillance has become a significant political issue to wider segments of the population. Simply put, while certain surveillance activities can and do generate local, national, or international resistance, as a whole the issue of surveillance has yet to spawn a larger social movement.

    Within this paper, I identify three inter-related factors that I see as potentially inhibiting the generation of a pro-privacy/anti-surveillance social movement in North America. Drawing on social movements theory, I suggest that those seeking to develop such a social movement need to first successfully grapple with the following issues: (1) it must be demonstrated that a problem exists and that taking action will prevent a harm to both the individual and the collective well-being of the general public; (2) advocates must carefully frame the problem and, thus, the nature of the movement; and (3) the scope of the problem must be clearly set in order to avoid the issue appearing too large or too amorphous and, thus, intractable. In the pages that follow, I examine these concerns, concluding with some final remarks on the likelihood of such a social movement arising.


    It might be helpful to begin with a definition of "social movement." For this purpose, I am borrowing from Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper, who state that "[a] social movement is a collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, power holders, or cultural beliefs and practices." (1) Such movements are defined by a collective sense of identity, ideology, and a shared grievance. "Collective efficacy comes when disenchanted individuals, first, recognize themselves as a group with a shared grievance and, second, believe that collective action can reduce or eradicate the source of grievance." (2) Throughout history, shared grievances have spawned a number of collective efforts to alter harmful social, political, economic, environmental, health, and other conditions with varying degrees of success.

    Since the 1980s the issue of surveillance and the potential for erosion of citizens' rights to privacy have come increasingly to the fore in public consciousness. As technologies with surveillance capacities proliferate, so too have fears about their usage and meanings, leading citizens to engage in a number of forms of resistance. Automobile drivers evade anti-speeding cameras and/or advise other drivers as to the existence of speed traps, individuals routinely opt-out of retail programs that track their purchases, and others utilize encryption software and other tools in efforts to retain online privacy. Professionally organized advocacy groups, as well as local grassroots collectives, have also sprung up, either to defeat a particular surveillance proposal or to engender sustained resistance to surveillance schemes in general. Yet, in spite of such efforts, and despite growing concerns over the proliferation of surveillance forms in North America, none of the actions of individuals or collectives have led, to date, to the formation of a genuine social movement. Rather, what we tend to see are discrete battles over particular programs or technologies that fail to translate into a wider push on the issue of surveillance and/or privacy.

    I am hardly alone in my assessment of the state of what can only be termed, at present, the anti-surveillance/pro-privacy non-movement. In a recent book on the politics of surveillance and visibility, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson make no reference to a wider social movement in this field; rather, in surveying the landscape, they find surveillance to be a political battlefield on which individual stakeholder groups both pro and con--attempt to influence particular configurations of surveillance. (3) In relation to those stakeholders on the anti-surveillance/pro-privacy side of the equation, Colin Bennett makes the point more explicitly, stating, "It]he privacy advocacy network has never been regarded as a 'social movement' either by those within it, or by those observing from the outside." (4) Similarly, while David Lyon is of the view that privacy advocacy networks are "undoubtedly influential," he suggests that they fail to "count as a fully fledged 'social movement'." (5) Such views are echoed by Brian Martin, who also notes that "concern about invasions of privacy has not led to a mass movement against surveillance." (6)

    To be clear, the views expressed by Haggerty, Ericson, Bennett, and Lyon in the previous paragraph are not universally...

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