Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies


The IRISS project addresses the question of resilience in surveillance societies. Starting from the assumption that modern societies are “sleepwalking” into a surveillance regime, the project understands resilience primarily as a form of (individual and/or collective) reaction against the real or perceived negative impacts of surveillance. This reading is different from many studies in the field of security research that define surveillance as a strategy to increase societal resilience in the face of threats from crime and terrorism. Looking at the effects of surveillance in combatting crime and terrorism it can be demonstrated how new technologies change security and police work and how the digitization of existing practices and introduction of digital technologies produces problematic effects without necessarily increasing their effectiveness.

IRISS looks at the effects of surveillance from different perspectives. On the one hand IRISS investigates the impact of surveillance on individual freedom, democracy and privacy, taking a social, legal and political theory perspective. On the other hand the IRISS project sets out to reconstruct effects of surveillance from the perspective of citizens in different European countries. Employing this dual analytical framework a complex interpretation of the effects of surveillance emerges, demonstrating the ambivalence of resilience in surveillance societies. Citizens are transformed into techno-social hybrids and develop different ways to cope with this new status that is turning them into leaking data container. The key finding is that citizens are affected by new information and communication technologies developing a high surveillance potential.

Legal and political theory is confronted with a number of problems emerging in surveillance societies regarding the protection of fundamental rights and democracy. IRISS has conducted an empirical test how citizens can exercise their access rights when it comes to person related data, to find out what information is stored about them. The results were discouraging. Getting access to personal data stored with different public and private institutions turned out to be very often extremely difficult and in some cases even impossible.

Designing strategies for resilience is complicated. Different readings of the concept of resilience are used entertained in academic discourse. Surrendering to massive surveillance can be interpreted as a form of resilience while at the same time active resistance and civil disobedience qualify as resilient strategy as well. In the most general sense a (social) system can be called resilient when it has the capability to maintain its identity after a shock or to readapt to a new stage of equilibrium after having been exposed to an adverse event. The growth of surveillance societies typically comes not as a shock but as an incremental process and so the idea of resilience has to be modified to be applicable.

In IRISS we understand the contribution of our research to increase resilience as a form of creating public awareness about the obvious and hidden effects of massive surveillance. What seems important is to broaden the scope of analysis. Surveillance is not only to be understood as a targeted strategy to combat and prevent crime and terrorism performed in the realm of law enforcement. A massive surveillance regime emerges as a side effect of a culture of electronic consumerism, where (new) social media play a significant role in citizens’ daily lives. Data traces left in cyber space provide commercial actors from Amazon to Google, from Facebook to Twitter with a massive amount of person related information that can be used for different purposes. The greatest threat to a democratic and open society honouring the principles of individual freedom and democracy would materialize when the two realms of public and private surveillance merge without robust democratic and legal control to create a society of complete transparency and encompassing control, suffocating any form of civic resistance and autonomy.

COORDINATOR: Reinhard Kreissl, Insitute for the Sociology of Law & Criminology


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 285593.