Digital Citizenship and Surveillance| The Advent of Surveillance Realism: Public Opinion and Activist Responses to the Snowden Leaks

Lina Dencik, Jonathan Cable


The Snowden leaks provided unprecedented insights into the workings of state-corporate surveillance programs based on the interception and collection of online activity. They illustrated the extent of “bulk” data collection and the general and widespread monitoring of everyday communication platforms used by ordinary citizens. Yet public response in the United Kingdom and elsewhere has been considerably muted, and there has been little evidence of public outcry, with often conflicting and inconsistent opinions on the subject. Based on research carried out for the project Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society, this article explores the nuances of public attitudes toward surveillance, including such attitudes among politically active citizens, through focus groups and interviews. We argue that the lack of transparency, knowledge, and control over what happens to personal data online has led to feelings of widespread resignation, not consent, to the status quo that speaks to a condition we identify as “surveillance realism.” We understand this to entail a simultaneous unease among citizens with data collection alongside the active normalization of surveillance that limits the possibilities of enacting modes of citizenship and of imagining alternatives.


Snowden, surveillance, activism, public opinion, surveillance realismon; surveillance realism

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